Reviewed by: Kenneth R. Morefield, Ph.D.
|Featuring:||Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund, Jay Hernandez, Lucas Black|
“Hope comes alive on Friday nights”
Plot: Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) tries to lead a talented but undersized high school football team to the Texas state championship. Based on H.G. Bissinger’s book documenting the actual events surrounding the 1988 season, the film is rated PG-13 for some sexual content, portrayals of alcohol abuse, language, and sports violence. WARNING: SOME IMPLIED PLOT SPOILERS IN THE REVIEW.
When I was a college student in the mid 1980s, one of the buzzwords in the evangelical subculure was “idolatry.” It became fashionable to call anything that someone was interested in his or her “idol.” Eventually, my Inter-Varsity staff worker chided us a bit in a talk, making the distinction that idolatry is not just an enthusiastic devotion to a person or practice. To be an idol, she suggested, something must take a central place in one’s life, become a central preoccupation around which one arranges his or her life and to which one gives not just his time but also his heart and his hope. To simply be enthusiastic, disciplined, or preoccupied was not necessarily idolatry. I always appreciated and remembered that talk, because it reminded me that Christians can and should be passionately engaged in all areas of their lives, not as a replacement for their faith but as an expression of it. That being said, I use the following term consciously and deliberately.
In Odessa, Texas, football is an idol. “Friday Night Lights” is more thoughtful than most sports films, and its success is in direct proportion to the ambivalence it feels towards the fanatical devotion that the players, parents, and community have for the sport. The film understands that idols always promise more than they give and take more than they promise. It also captures the melancholy and desperation inherent in professional football coach Bill Parcell’s admission that the losing hurts more than the winning feels good. “Friday Night Lights” shows that the euphoria of winning is not a zero sum transaction that is proportional to one’s own effort or suffering but is made up in large part of relief at escaping or forestalling the agony felt by the statistical majority of participants who give everything they have but are denied the prize for which they sacrifice all else.
If this were the film’s only message, however, it would not be as effective as it is. The film is not a celebration of fanatical devotion, but neither is it an indictment of it. The film skillfully manages to be sympathetic towards its subject matter without excusing it. In the final montage in which we get the typed over “where are they now” updates, we find that only one player on the team received a Division IA football scholarship and that none of them went on to play professionally. Yet many of them, shockingly enough, seem to have managed to have reasonably successful lives, carving out a place in the world with the help of discipline, devotion and work ethics that have been instilled in them by the pursuit of a championship ring rather than the ring itself.
The book of Ecclesiastes chronicles one man’s inventory of all the things he has vainly hoped will give his life meaning. In his commentary on this book, Jacques Ellul points out that idolatry provides a false hope which, when shown to be illusory, often leads to an intense hatred of the object of previous devotion grounded in the disappointment felt when it does not meet our expectations of filling the emptiness in our lives.
This process is illustrated perfectly in the film’s presentation of Charles Billingsley, the father of the team’s second string running back. Tim McGraw’s performance deftly avoids the inherent clichés in the character of the obsessive sports parent to craft a man whose contempt for his son’s inability to achieve football success is gradually revealed to be a thin and ineffectual mask at his own disappoint that his success has not been enough to make his life meaningful and his own self-loathing that he has not been able to provide anything for his son except a promise—winning this championship will be enough to balance out all of life’s other disappointments—that he knows not to be true. His son’s quest becomes all the more poignant when we see it not as a vain attempt to win a monster’s love but as a desperate attempt to soothe a beloved parent’s aching, wild, pain, an attempt made all the more desperate by the gnawing suspicion that even if it is successful, it will probably not be enough.
There is a lot of imagery in film, including the final scene, about how values, hopes, lessons, and maybe curses, are passed from generation to generation. The primary lesson is that there is nobility and reward in passionate engagement in life, that pursuing a goal that is beyond your reach brings with it the strength and character that can feed and sustain you emotionally, physically, and perhaps, for a time—spiritually.
The curse is that these rewards are inextricably linked to a game that is arbitrary and undependable: happiness is never assured, and, once attained, it can be take from you at any moment. “Friday Night Lights” works best in its moments where it is most honest about the curse as well as the hope. That it ultimately blinks in the face of its material and tries to manufacture a feel good, “this is what was meant by success all along” message out of its ending keeps it from being a great movie. That it avoids merely using the subject matter as a pretext for depicting the sex, the drinking, and the fame (all of which are portrayed but not lingered over) that give this particular idol much of its seductive power makes it a pretty good one, and one that invites (but doesn’t force) its readers to contemplate the subject matter rather than merely celebrate it.
Violence: Minor / Profanity: Minor / Sex/Nudity: Mild
My Grade: B+