Saturday, August 3, 2013

Friday Night Lights: One Story, Three Takes - PART TWO: THE MOVIE


Immediately upon publication, H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights attracted interest from Hollywood filmmakers. Director, producers, and writers moved in and out. Originally,  Alan J. Pakula was attached to direct a screenplay by David S. Ward, who was coming off the hit baseball comedy Major League. At this point, Sam Shepard, during his all-too-brief period as a bankable leading man, was the potential star, presumably as the team's coach. No script by Ward has ever seen the light of day, so it's hard to know for sure what tone the film would have taken, or what elements from the book it would have focused on -- the signing on of Shepard was a good sign, as he naturally projects the air of a plainspoken, intelligent man of rural America, though Ward's output as a screenwriter does little to indicate that the film would be anything other than watchable, but shallow. Later, Richard Linklater (an independent film darling who was also a star Texas high school quarterback) was ready to begin filming, and even began casting and scouting locations before financing fell apart following the box office failure of his film The Newton Boys, leaving cinephiles able only to dream of the mouth-watering possibility of a Linklater-led Lights. As over a decade went by without cameras rolling on any film version of Bissinger's book, its themes and settings were appropriated by off-brand works, like the short-lived NBC series Against the Grain, which ran for a few months in 1993 and is most notable for providing a young Ben Affleck with one of his first big roles, or 1999's film Varsity Blues, which gave the world a Hollywoodized story of a teen on a Texas team facing off against his evil, scenery chewing coach. That film was Lights with the edges sanded off, the nuances made into cartoon morality. The good characters got happy endings, D1 scholarships, Ivy League acceptance letters, and rides off into the sunset while Jon Voight's victory-seeking tyrant of a coach met his comeuppance as his career went up in flames. The state championship trophy is taken home. The boy kisses the girl. The injured players are either miraculously healed or forget their worries when they are given cushy coaching jobs. It was popular, and it was pabulum, and it was exactly the kind of movie that fans of Friday Night Lights feared would be made of their beloved book.

It would not be until 2004 that a film version of Bissinger's book would finally be made and released. The directorial reins fell into the hands of one Peter Berg, who, perhaps not-so-coincidentally, was the cousin of H.G. Bissinger. Berg, an actor and sometimes director with two feature film direction credits to his name, did not necessarily seem like the right man for the job, family connections aside. A New York-native who attended elite East Coast prep academies far away from the overstuffed, underfunded public schools of small town Texas, and whose previous films were competent, but perhaps too-slick comedies, Berg's assignment to Friday Night Lights might have indicated a work-for-hire hack-job. Nothing could be further from the truth. Berg's take on Friday Night Lights was a soulful, deeply felt film, one of the most unfairly undervalued major works of the aughts, proving to be silently influential across multiple mediums and inventing or codifying devices and tropes that are widely used nowadays, but were practically unheard of even ten years ago.

As with any adaptation, the artists behind the film version of Friday Night Lights, (primarily Berg, although the final script credited to Berg and David Aaron Cohen, whose contributions may or may not actually appear in the final film) had to pick and choose which elements from the original source they deemed appropriate for the new incarnation of the same story. And the book Friday Night Lights would be a particular challenge to its adaptors, as its sociological vision and telling detours would be either unpresentable or meandering in a 2-hour long movie where everything is moving at the audience at 24 frames per second. In the finished film, just about everything is jettisoned that does not clearly have to do with the 1988 Panthers season, and the team's key players. The history and growth of Odessa would be unexamined, its rival schools and city demographics would be unremarked upon, local team fans, civic leaders, and preachers would be seen, if at all, in the backgrounds of scenes. Some would lament that the film traded in a portrait of an American town in exchange for a typical sports movie, but Berg, in making his version of Friday Night Lights, smartly knew that the key to filmmaking lie in dramatization, and that those elements that the film was superficially cutting from the book were in fact being covertly handled through the surface elements of the film and its more streamlined storyline. 

Having found the spine of their movie (the Permian Panthers rising and falling fortunes as they make their way through the 1988 season), Berg and company were now tasked with identifying its protagonists. In doing so, they highlighted a figure of relatively little importance in the book, and made him one of the film's heroes, and its star role: Coach Gary Gaines, played by a top-billed Billy Bob Thornton.

In Bissinger's book, the focus, when it is placed on a particular person, is almost always on one of the teens on the team. Gaines gets several significant passages emphasizing him in the text, but they are dwarfed by the amount of ink spent on say, Mike Winchell, or Boobie Miles. The image that emerges of Gaines from the book is a sympathetic one. Although Bissinger clearly finds something wrong with the fact that Gaines gets paid more than the school principal, the Coach is primarily presented as something of a victim. He is the subject of negative op-eds in the local newspaper, hundreds of letters of hate mail, and cruel taunts offered by disgruntled Panthers fans who don't agree with the way he's been running their beloved team. With his job on the line with every win or loss, and his time almost completely taken up by handling a team of hormonal teenagers, charged with whipping them into a functional unit of world-class athletes, Gaines handles his workload with a level head and a mostly calm demeanor, giving inspirational, softly-spoken speeches to his boys, not rants or shouts. This characterization carries over to the film, but with a far greater chunk of the film than the book being taken up with Gaines' professional and personal life. The story of the film version of Lights can be summed, somewhat incompletely, but not inaccurately, as the story of a coach dealing a football-crazed town, in a way that would be simply not true for the book. Aided by a fully-embodied performance by Thornton, who was then at the heights of his career as an actor, coming shortly after his equally great (and greatly diverse) turns in The Man Who Wasn't There and Bad Santa, the portrait the film presents of Gaines is that of a stoic, but not unemotional man of quiet dignity and gentle strength, the kind of hero scarcely seen in films nowadays, owing more to Gary Cooper in High Noon or Henry Fonda in any number of John Ford films, not least Young Mr. Lincoln, but far more naturalistic than either of those actors usually wore. And Thornton refuses to make Gaines into a cardboard saint. Gaines makes several questionable decisions over the course of the film, decisions that affect other people in negative ways, and while Gaines is acting in his role as coach, he, at times, seems to realize that he is acting more in the interests of the Boosters and fans than his young charges, his eyes showing his questioning of himself, a mixture of regret and indecisiveness. Thornton's scenes in the last act of the film, delivering the what may be the least rah-rah, but most genuinely affecting speech in sports movie history, animatedly running along the sidelines in the final game, and feeling the spirit leave his body as the refs make their final call, may rank up with the greatest performances in the American sports film genre. Sadly, it would seem that the strength of Thornton's performance may be being overlooked in favor of Kyle Chandler's equally great, but more attractive performance as the TV coach, but more on that in a later post. 

The other protagonists of the film are likewise taken from the book, and are rather easily identifiable, in that they are the characters whose home life the audience is shown. While the film shines a spotlight on several of the real-life players, including Ivory Christian, Brian Chavez, and a relatively minor character from the book, younger player Chris Comer (Jerrod McDougal is entirely removed from the film), only Boobie Miles, Mike Winchell, and to a lesser extent, Don Billingsley, can be termed true protagonists. This can be seen, subtly but clearly once noticed, in the earliest moments of the film, as Mike and Boobie both receive brief scenes before they join the rest of the team outside the stadium for the season's first practice, Mike eating breakfast while being verbally prepped by his fragile mother, and Boobie jogging down the street while being worshipped by adoring children like a rock star. Throughout the film, Boobie and Mike's journeys provide the film with a more emotionally connective through-line than Gaines' more restrained storyline. Played by Derek Luke, Boobie Miles remains, as in the book, the tragic hero at the center of Friday Night Lights, although in the film version he shares his duties as heart-and-soul with Mike Winchell. Berg and Luke show the bravado and the confidence of the young running back at the beginning of the season, and even as he boasts and gloats, the viewer remains on his side, feeding off the charisma and charm of Luke's performance. His performance becomes more complex as Boobie's emotional toughness is tested following his pivotal knee injury, and it is here that Luke's heartfelt performance really shines, as Boobie reacts to the greatest setback in his life with incredulousness, then anger, then deep sadness, breaking down in his car, crying his eyes out while wondering aloud to his uncle "What am I gonna do if I can't play football. I'm not good at nothin'!" Those who criticized the film for being too soft on the high school football culture must have stepped out for popcorn during that scene, as well as the scene where Boobie silently observes a black garbageman with both terror and resignation, seeing, like Ebenezer Scrooge confronted with his own grave, a dark vision of his possible future. The film's football scenes are well-choreographed and shot, but it is in these quieter scenes that Friday Night Lights really comes alive. 

Likewise, Lucas Black's interpretation of Mike Winchell is an intensely, at times uncomfortably, emotional piece of acting. While Derek Luke at least gets to strut and puff his chest as Boobie Miles, flashily showing off his acting muscles in an in-character way, Black plays one of the most low-key and unshowy leading characters in a Hollywood film in recent memory. Winchell, as in the book, is quiet and gloomily private. While the omniscience of the film camera provides the audience with a closer look at Winchell and his inner-life than the non-fiction book was able to, it still refrains from giving Mike big, out-of-character monologues or expository voice over narration. Mike's most revealing moments in the film are a brief phone conversation with his brother that we can only hear one side of, a few short comments delivered to his teammates in the movie's final big game, one scene that solely consists of Winchell crying in the locker room following a loss, and, most of all, silent looks, expressions, and glances. Black is a supreme underplayer, in the best sense of the word, showing that acting is as much about reacting as it is about big moments, and that it is possible to simply exist as your character in a moment, breathing and moving as they would, drawing in the viewer with its verisimilitude. Black, in a cast full of unbelievably strong performers, deserves the MVP title, and with any luck, will at some point in his career find a role that rivals his turn, at age only 21, as Mike Winchell.

Other characters get their moments in the sun, most notably Garret Hedlund as Don Billingsley, whose character arc revolves entirely around his relationship with his father, Charlie (played by country music star Tim McGraw), in a role that is greater emphasized than in the book. Berg's script makes significant additions and changes to these two characters, departures from reality that change the nature of their relationship, and the audience's takeaway from it. As described by Bissinger, Charlie Billingsley is a drunken ne'er-do-well who gained a reputation as a hell-raiser while still in high school, and has been successfully living up to it since then, twenty years down the road. His relationship with his son is an irresponsible one, with Charlie staying up all night, partying and drinking with his 17-year-old son. But it is not abusive. This is where Berg makes one of his biggest changes from the book, and from real life. As played by McGraw, Charlie Billingsley crosses the line from irresponsible, to downright combative. In two scenes early on, Billingsley Sr., while intoxicated, beats his son for not living up to his expectations as a football player. Later, after the Panthers lose a crucial game to their arch-rivals Midland Lee, Charlie kicks out the windows of his sons' car, in a scene completely constructed out of thin air by Berg and Cohen. This is likely the most irresponsible change that Berg made in adapted Friday Night Lights, linking a real man to a fabricated list of sins, and it is no surprise that H.G. Bissinger reported that Don and Charlie Billingsley refused to speak to him following the release of the film. Others include Brian Chavez, drastically reduced in importance from the book, and Ivory Christian, played in a near-silent performance by former Texas Longhorns linebacker Lee Jackson.

But while the performances in the film are wonderful, down to the briefest extra roles and one-line bit parts essayed by Odessa natives and amateur actors, it is in Berg's direction that Friday Night Lights proves itself exceptional.  Berg announces himself as visual stylist to rank among the best of his contemporaries. Lights, although filmed largely on the kind of handheld digital cameras most associated with increasingly popular faux-documentary style, creates a largely impressionistic mode of storytelling, aiming not for physical realism per se, but a psychological and emotional realism. The cinematography, courtesy of Tobias A. Schliessler, who for some reason has gone on to do nothing worth watching, is a masterwork, filming the football scenes with a tough, battle-like physicality that owes more to Saving Private Ryan than ESPN sports highlights, and the home scenes with an amazing intimacy. Berg and Schliessler perfectly capture the sun-soaked sands of West Texas at dawn just as much as it captures the clear night skies hanging above the astroturf on fall's Friday nights. Berg's camera catches stray moments, little shots here and there than infinitely expand the world of the film beyond the main plot, such as the wordless shot of a mascot comforting a crying cheerleader after a loss and imbues with them a Terrence Malick-esque humaneness a few years before being Malickian was in vogue. Berg knows how to let the camera linger on a single image, images like a football resting a mere inch away from the end zone, a potent reminder of the desperation of defeat.

Also key are moments humanizing the Dallas team, moments like the team praying during halftime of the state finals and celebrating with true glee their hard-fought win, as if we were being presented with glimpses from an alternate film, a film where the Dallas Carter Cowboys were the heroes of the story, and the Panthers were the villains. It is the small touches like this that open up the film beyond the typical, cliched sports story.

In fact, the overriding mode of the film is to undercut the traditional beats and rhythms of a Hollywood sports film. Expectations of machismo are subverted as we watch the Panthers, who seem invincible on the field, try and fail to suppress their feelings, crying in the locker room as other teammates awkwardly try not to notice. There are none of the usual boilerplate romantic subplots to distract from the core story.* The big game -- the state championship, promoted from real life's state semifinals for greater impact** -- features the team being badly beaten for two quarters, getting an inspirational speech from their coach, coming out for the second half, playing their best, getting down to the last play. . . and falling just short of winning. And to be clear, this isn't a moral victory for the Panthers. They didn't lose but learn something. Nor did they "go the distance," showing the world that they had what it took, a la the original Rocky. No, they started the season ranked number one -- hardly the typical bunch of mismatched underdogs -- made it to the finals, and gave everything they had, and it just wasn't good enough, becomes sometimes you're not good enough. And that's what, if anything, they learn. They set out at the beginning of the season, when hope was high and the future looked bright, to "protect their town," to provide the out-of-work, depressed citizens of Odessa something to be proud of. And they failed, and will never get a chance to redo what they failed at. And when they arrive home, Boobie's knee will still be shattered, the oil workers will still be unemployed, and the maddening craze for Panther football glory will not have ended, just moved back one year. It's a gut punch of an ending.

*Some might argue that a lack of significant roles for women, beyond Connie Britton's thankless tiny role as the supportive coach's wife, may be a fault of the film. But this is a film set in a male driven world, about men, machismo, and masculine roles. It no more needs strong female characters than does 12 Angry Men or Lawrence of Arabia.

**Berg deftly understood that you can't devote nearly thirty minutes of your 118 minute long film to single semi-finals game without giving away that the team aren't making it to state.

For the entirety of the Lights, Peter Berg places the watcher in the emotional headspace of its characters, feeling their pangs and losses, and the exhilaration in their victories. In order to eliminate as much possible distance between the audience and the characters as possible, Berg de-emphasizes the elements of the film's 1988 setting that might make it too easy to view the film as a peculiar retro curio. To be sure, Berg doesn't deny the film's setting -- Don and Boobie still sport their period-appropriate flowing locks and hi-top fade, respectively, and the characters drive big, clunky '80s era auto abominations -- but does make certain key decision to play up the timelessness of the story. Perhaps chief among them is the decision to hire Explosions in the Sky to provide the film's soundtrack. At the time a young up-and-coming band, Explosions in the Sky play a unique form of "post-rock": lengthy, guitar-driven instrumentals that Berg uses to paint the landscape of the Southwest suburbs and stadiums. The more traditional methods of scoring sports films -- typically a combination of soaring "inspirational" symphony orchestras or a "nostalgic" mixture of overplayed oldies -- are avoiding in favor of prewritten and original songs by the Midland-based outfit, paving the way for a decade of athletic gear ads, NFL commercials, and other sports films*** that would be set to Explosions in the Sky, or Explosions-esque knock offs. Further amplifying the timeless feel on the soundtrack is a carefully chosen selection of anachronistic tracks that move the film away from pigeonholed '80s cliches. Berg scores one montage to Jimmy Smith's soulful '60s scorcher "Got My Mojo Workin'" and other segments to '90s-era artists like Swedish hardcore punk band Refused or guitarist Daniel Lanois, deploying them effectively and efficiently in key moments.

***For instance, Bennett Miller's Moneyball, a film that attempts to closely replicate Friday Night Lights' aesthetic and apply it to a Major League Baseball setting, with mixed results.

Some of the criticisms lobbed towards the movie are not entirely baseless, but they are often based on superficial readings of the film. For instance, accusations of Berg "whitewashing" the racism prevalent in the book have some basis, but only up to a point. While the word "n****r" is only used once in the movie (by a white Panther booster wife during a dinner party), visual and verbal signifiers of racism can be seen all throughout the film, reminding the audience that this story takes place in a de facto segregated society. It's seen in the tired face and sad eyes of Grover Coulson, playing Boobie's uncle L.V. Miles, watching his nephew's life turn to ruin. Most white characters' attitude towards Boobie Miles is that peculiar mixture of discomfort and begrudging admiration that originates in a world where blacks are second-class citizens, but the white majority is more-than-willing to profit from black talent. There's a smartly written and played scene where Coach Gaines and rival Coach James, who is black and coaches an all black team, slyly dance around the race issue verbally while negotiating the location and ref staff of the state championship, a scene where Gaines wonders how many black or white stripes will be on the "zebras" at the game, implicitly showing that even the fatherly Coach Gaines is a representative and a beneficiary of a racially problematic system. Peter Berg, it is said, was able to gain the support and trust of the people of Odessa (who hated the book for years) by agreeing to downplay the racism depicted in Bissinger's original. But truly doing so would almost completely neuter the impact of the film, so Berg wisely did something much more subtle, even if it seemed to confound critics unwilling to dig deeper into the film: making the racism subtextual but making sure it was all over the movie. This is almost certainly the best choice for the film, as a more overt and obvious portrayal of prejudice would likely drown out the rest of the themes of Friday Night Lights, making it into a film that was solely about racism, instead of a film that addressed a number of issues and elements, including racism. To be sure, though, a whole film could be made that dealt more primarily with the racial issues of Friday Night Lights, though I don't know if it would be a film with as much power and impact as the film we have been given.

I could continue to write about the craft present in each frame of this film, but to do so would be unnecessary. Once one has begun to seriously consider and admire the artistry of Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights, the film's strengths will speak for themselves. Unfortunately it seems to this author that the majority of viewers, watching a film without a name director, with a cast of actors who were either mostly unknown or inexperienced, and in a genre that tends to make assembly-line products, were not prepared to address the film on the level it was aiming for. As for the followup series of the same name, it was able to soften the aesthetic and, by nature of a being a long-running TV show, endear itself more to its fan than the film was able to, despite being somewhat flawed and rather less ambitious than the film. But more on that in the third part of this series. Nevertheless, for this writer, Friday Night Lights represents a high-water mark for 21st century Hollywood filmmaking, a film that has, unlike so many films, surpluses in both technical proficiency and genuine emotion, not impassively judging its subjects, but presenting the audience with their real emotions, with no barrier between viewer and character. It's endlessly watchable. It's clever. It's exciting. It's heartbreaking. What Bissinger's book achieves with deft journalism and a critical, analytic eye, Berg achieves with first-rate filmmaking and true empathy, creating an accomplishment more than worthy of the name and legacy of Friday Night Lights.

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