Nothing new under the 'Friday Night Lights'
Published: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2005 at 10:36 p.m.
On the surface, you might think sports movies would be easy to make.
4 "E"s: Tremendous (best of the bunch);
3 "E"s: Superior;
2 "E's: Fair (it's been done better);
1 "E": Avoid (save your money)
Nine out of 10 sports movies are exactly the same: We meet some athletes, follow their ups and downs, deal with their drill sergeant coach and, ultimately, watch them in the Big Game. Winning the Big Game, of course, will justify their struggle and solve their problems.
There, I've just summed up 500 different sports movies. Sounds easy, right? But then comes the tricky part. After all, if the movie is just showing football action, then why wouldn't the viewer just go watch football on free TV?
The key to making a great sports movie is to create sympathetic characters and stories set within the context of the sporting world. "Rocky" wasn't just about a boxer winning a few fights, it was about a man proving his worth. "Bull Durham" wasn't about baseball, it was about romance and redemption. "Hoosiers" was about believing in the little guy.
And this is what makes "Friday Night Lights" a disappointment. It starts out well, showing us how an entire community can center itself around high school football. But by the end, it comes up lame and decides to just be about winning the big game.
Odessa, Texas, is a town with a fanatical devotion to the Permian High School Panthers. Hopes for a state championship seem to be all anyone can talk about. Droves of people turn up to practices, "concerned citizens" approach the coach about his defense and all the town businesses close up shop on game day.
In the middle are a handful of characters caught up in the madness, though they do not share it. Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) is a serious man who deals with his players on a personal and professional level, and does not appreciate the constant scrutiny. Don Billingsly (Garrett Hedlund) is a butter-fingers running back who is trying to live up to the legend of his father, a champion from years before. Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) sees his one chance to escape Odessa and disappear with the crack of a knee.
And most notably, there is quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) who does not seem to enjoy his life. When asked "Do you love to play football?" during an interview, he lies - poorly - and says he does.
But playing football is not an option in Odessa. Wins are expected, and even the hint of a loss can lead to the firing of a coach. When the film stays on these topics, it does quite well. But eventually, "Friday Night Lights" becomes exactly what it examines; it gets caught up in the excitement of the season, and the final reels are little more than a play-by-play of the Big Game.
"Friday Night Lights" is a well-made film, with a great cast and a great soundtrack. But ultimately, it's just another sports movie and doesn't do anything that hasn't been done before.
"Varsity Blues" has a lot in common with "Lights." It's also about a small Texas town that obsesses over high school football, and the quarterback who is thrust into the spotlight. Of course, this quarterback (James Van Der Beek) likes to read and slips Kurt Vonnegut novels into his playbook.
The coach in this film is played by Jon Voight, not as a man who loves his players, but as a heel who looks at them as tools for winning a championship. He is a racist with unbounded cruelty. His disregard for his players results in several injuries, and our hero must decide whether he wants to play or battle the coach.
This is what makes "Varsity Blues" a good movie for me. The focus isn't about the football games (although they are featured prominently) but about the kids in them. It all comes to a head during the Big Game, but for once the story isn't about winning the game, but standing up against The Man.
Standing up against The Man is something we can all enjoy and isn't featured on ESPN quite so frequently.
When it comes to movies about high school football (and about standing up to The Man, for that matter) it's hard to top "Remember the Titans."
"Remember the Titans" is set in Virginia, 1971. Although, from the alarming degree of anti-black sentiment in the white community, it might as well be 1871. For political reasons, a winning but white Coach Yost is replaced by Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) as the head coach of the first racially integrated high school to "appease" the angry black community.
Of course, that isn't good enough for Boone. He doesn't want to appease anyone, he just wants to win football games. The only way to do this is to unify his team, and, slowly, he does just that. The walls of racism start to crack, and the white and black players learn they are all brother Titans.
The football games take on more significance because "Titans" smartly combines the battle on the field with the battle in society. The more the racism fades away, the better they play as a team. And when it comes down to the Big Game, there is more than just a championship on the line.
It's easy to show a football game. "Titans" makes you care about the players, the coach and the team itself. Long after the "Friday Night Lights" have been turned off, I will still "Remember the Titans."
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