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Friday Night Lights

The Men of Mojo

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Jutting out of the dusty plains of West Texas is Ratliff Stadium, a 20,000-seat monument to high school football and the fervor that surrounds it. The Periman Panthers of Odessa -- "Mojo" to their fans, the winningest high school football team in Texas history -- play here, and Friday Night Lights is the story of their 1988 season.

 

 

It's a tale first told in H.B Bissinger's best-selling 1990 book of the same name; Bissinger spent a year with the team in Odessa, and wrote a book that while capturing the excitement of the sport and the heart of the young players also laid bare the associated ugliness in a small town gripped with football fever: the racism, the tremendous pressure placed on the kids, the ascendancy of athletics over education, a devotion that becomes an obsession.

 

That's a lot of material to cram into a two-hour film, and director Peter Berg's adaption focuses mostly on the travails of three players and their coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), as the team struggles to make it to the state championship. The larger social commentary is relegated to quick snapshots or incorporated within the young men's biographies.

 

Team star Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) is the lippy showboater, the poor black kid who's breezing through school and life on his athletic skills until he's sidelined by an early-season injury. Football prowess is also the ticket out for the preternaturally solemn quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); his buddy Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) suffers in the shadow of his domineering, unsatisfied father, Charlie (country singer Tim McGraw), a former Panther star. Off the field, these kids seem to lead a joyless life, burdened by pressures that adults would find difficult to bear.

 

But because this is a sports melodrama, the sweetness of their existence is on the field, under the lights -- and it's here too that Berg ratchets up the intensity, filling the screen with a rapid-fire, super-saturated mosaic of sound and images: the bands, the fans, the resounding thunk of bodies crashing, the play-by-play, the screaming coach (though this is one of Thornton's most restrained performances).

 

Yet for all the additional weight this film wants to carry, the game sequences, especially in the film's final third, feel typical -- it's about winning (or, as always, "how you play the game"), and thus for non-sports fans, less interesting. We learn that the town is obsessed -- to the point of dangerous small-mindedness -- but in the film the cause of these symptoms remains elusive.

 

Friday Night Lights struck me as a partisan sort of film, where one's affection for high school sports would determine one's response, either upbeat or not. If you're partial to male bonding and community-building via sports, you'll find the pluck of these kids -- to play the game and to rise to the town's expectations -- inspiring. On the other hand, I found the emphasis on sports to the exclusion of these kids' unstructured youth depressing -- "I don't feel 17," Mike laments at one point -- but also worthy of further exposition. AAb

 

Starts Fri., Oct. 8.

 

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A Town Called Football

 

Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg and H.B. Bissinger, who wrote the eponymous best-selling 1990 account of Periman's 1988 season, stopped in Pittsburgh to discuss the film, the book and football mania.

 

Pittsburgh is, of course, "the cradle of football."

H.B. Bissinger: It's definitely known as a place that's high-school-football crazed, and when I was thinking of doing the book, it was one of the three places I considered, besides Odessa and Massillon, Ohio.

 

Why is football fandom so fervent even at the high school level?

HB: There's a great pageantry to it. It's violent; there's a sense of physical prowess which is very important. In steel towns like in Pennsylvania and oil towns like Odessa, there's a real male macho myth to it.

Peter Berg: Football is as close to a gladiatorial spectacle that we can find. It's a very dangerous and violent game -- so the stakes are a bit higher, and that infuses all aspects of it: The cheerleading is more intense; the bands are more intense; the coaches are more intense; the investment a parent has watching his kid play is more intense. And it all stems from the violence of the sport.

 

How did you translate that aspect of violence into the film?

PB: I looked at a lot of football films; the films that really resonated the most were some of the documentaries I saw -- Go Tigers!, The Last Game. I do like the way that Steven Spielberg shot the opening of Saving Private Ryan, in terms of capturing the random chaos of battle. Obviously football is not war, but there is a violent randomness and chaotic quality to football that I have seen in some war films.

 

Is high school football overemphasized even as it's celebrated?

PB: The book existed on three levels -- the actual playing of the game, character study of these kids in this program, as well as an investigative, journalistic sociological exploration of a community and culture. That's something we didn't do as intensely in the film.

HB: One of the things I liked about the film that was integral to the book was capturing the insanity: It's so intense; there's so much pressure and adulation that goes to this very heightened state, and it can be too much. In a sense, are we telling kids, "This is the best moment you'll ever have in your life and you'll have no other moments?" And, in reality, in some cases it's true.

 

But that's why the subject is fascinating -- it's very complex. I could give you a big solid rap about what's wrong with high school football, but it's also such an exquisite spectacle that really does light up the lonely nights.

 

Though the book wasn't well received in Odessa, the film was shot there.

PB: They were definitely skeptical and some of the old guard did feel a sense of betrayal, confusion and embarrassment [from the book]. They thought [Bissinger] was going to write Hoosiers and that's not the way it turned out. I told them I was going to focus the film on the guys, and on the football.

 

We've showed the film [in Odessa]; they liked the film, but they weren't thrilled. But I thought if they were coming out high-fiving me and giving me the key to the city, then I probably would have failed the book.

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