' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Friday Night Lights

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Some Drivel On...Friday Night Lights

If Peter Berg movies are known for anything, aside perhaps from their frequent jingoism, it is their visual style, or anti-style a certain viewer might say, culled from the shaky cam school of Paul Greengrass, amongst others, where nearly everything is recounted in frenetic handheld and tripped up with quick cuts. That’s true of nearly all his films, from “Patriot’s Day” on back, which might, fourteen years later, rule any deeper reading of his ferocious quick-cutting in “Friday Night Lights” (2004) out of order. Still, set in the frighteningly serious world of Texas high school football, the gridiron teenagers are repeatedly counseled that the world, right here, right now, is their oyster and that they don’t know how good they have it and that they should make sure to appreciate it even as they are incessantly reminded that anything less than winning a state championship will be deemed failure. As such, every time Berg suddenly zooms in on a player’s face, or even a player’s eyes, in the wake of one of these “friendly” reminders , the overly aggressive aesthetic is not just for show but an effective reminder that life goes as fast for high school athletes as Ferris Bueller said it would.

You see the speed of life most acutely in the expression of Mike Winchell, quarterback of Odessa-Permian High’s beloved squad, played by Lucas Black with this indelible, almost permanent, facial expression of tight-lipped terror, whether he’s going over the playbook with his sick mother, stuffing food in his face as teenage boys will, or even cavorting with a young woman at a party. The flip side to his eternal pit of emotional despair, however, is Boobie Miles, star running back, apple of so many college football programs’ eyes, and played by Derek Luke with a wide-eyed smile and a kind of bodily charismatic mania, swaggering around the hallways of Odessa-Permian high like you imagine a Louis sauntering around Versailles. He is so cocky that he will, of course, have to be set cosmically straight, even if that wasn’t part of the real life story, and so he is, getting injured in the very first game and quickly realizing that it is not merely a matter of waiting a few weeks and then getting back on the field. He’s finished. And when he finally realizes this, the way in which Luke dramatically lets down his guard is not straining for awards because it goes hand in hand with the character he’s created, one on an emotional teeter-totter.

The plight of Boobie goes to show just how little control the head coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), has over his ostensible team, essentially ceding control of Boobie’s health to the teen’s uncle and doctors even as everyone in town, from the sheriff to the mayor implies in certain terms that Gaines needs to win or else. Thornton mostly has Gaines meet these off-field orders with a polite shrug while on the field and in the locker room he mostly cuts the figure of a conventional football coach. Whatever goes into this running a program or on-field strategizing mostly goes uncovered. What’s more, Thornton’s performance never quite gets to the core of what makes Gaines tick, what drives him to keep going forward in the face of so much insane external pressure, why he wants or needs to coach.

Connie Britton, meanwhile, playing his wife Sharon, is relegated to the periphery. And yet, while she would go on to star in the FX television series based on “Friday Night Lights” from 2006 to 2011, where her role was fleshed out and her performance earned raves, garnering two Emmy nominations, her turn in the film is a testament to what a great actress can wring from nothing much. Often sports wives at the movies are portrayed in the image of, say, “Miracle’s” Patricia Clarkson, like a rock, standing in darkly lit doorways and offering council at just the right moment. Britton, on the other hand, becomes a kind of sports movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, always lingering and offering piercing wordless commentary on the surrounding absurdity. Her character is often along for Gary’s obligatory glad-handing sessions with important locals, and her facial expressions whenever the camera picks her out are not weary so much as down the rabbit hole comical, like she is saying to her husband with just her eyes “This is your life, Gary”. And late in the movie, when she asks her husband if they are going to move again, suggesting Alaska, she takes her one line and makes it sing, transforming it into the punchline to what feels like a sad, ongoing, inside joke between coach and coach’s wife.

The conclusion, alas, has no such irony. After all, the movie spends an inordinate amount of time railing against the crazy pressure and unfairly disproportionate meaning adults long past their youth place in the actions of kids and on oft-arbitrary results. The championship game wrap-up, however, gives right back into all of it, and not with the same sort of wry, poetic appraisal of, say, Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday.” No, watching the ending made me think of how often people compare football to war, which is not, of course, really analogous at all. But then, it was the irascible Samuel Fuller who derided “Full Metal Jacket” as “another goddam recruiting film”, posing as anti-war even as it suckered everyone in. And I wondered, as Odessa-Permian came within a gasp of winning the title of everyone so desperately wanted, if football movies and war movies were the real equivalency.

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