Academic journal article Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature

Friday Night Lights: The Movie

Academic journal article Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature

Friday Night Lights: The Movie

Article excerpt

After fourteen years of misfirings and failed projects, H.G. Bissinger's 1990 contemporary classic analysis of Texas high school football finally made it to America's movie screens in 2004. Peter Berg both wrote and directed this two-hour feature in close collaboration with Bissinger, although Bissinger passed on taking a screen credit. While any film adaptation of a book, fiction or nonfiction, can never capture the nuances and complexity of the source text (one might think of The Human Stain or In Cold Blood here), Berg very much captures the atmosphere, the ambience, and the spirit of Bissinger's book. Bissinger's study has grown critical legs over time; it is much more than a chronicle of a team over the course of a season, it is one of the better social and cultural histories of recent years. Bissinger provides the history of Odessa, Texas, especially its peculiar economic history and studies its class structure, racial divide, and its values, honestly and unflinchingly. The result is a richly textured and absorbing critique.

Since a film may not unfold so leisurely as a book and must be compressed and visual, an adaptation has to make choices of themes to emphasize and must be faithful and unfaithful, simultaneously, to the source text. Berg solves this dilemma brilliantly by suggesting just about everything in the book through image and cinematography, but selecting central elements as the core structure for the film. Bissinger has acknowledged in several interviews how pleased he is with his actor/director cousin's adaptation, understanding that for coherence and focus, some issues had to be treated cursorily, if at all:

   You could make five or six movies about this book, [Bissinger says]
   I think the choice [Peter] made was, there are three primary
   elements in the book: sociological issues, the characters within it
   and the football. And I think he picked two. I think he decided to
   make it very character-driven, and to focus on the football. (qtd.
   in Philpot E7)

Certainly, the beautifully choreographed and edited game sequences offer some of the best filmed football ever because Berg consulted the technical experts at NFL Films. Moreover, Berg allows certain larger issues of race, class, and gender to emerge in context, subtly, without preaching. Astute viewers can infer certain barbarisms in Odessa culture; they aren't subjected to cartoonish grotesqueries because Berg respects the intelligence of his audience. But this film, as Bissinger notes, is about its characters, its concentration on three of the Permian players and their nontraditional--or dysfunctional, if you will--families: Mike Winchell, the quarterback, Don Billingsley, the wide receiver and sometimes ball carrier, and Boobie Miles, the injured running back. All live in single-parent homes: Winchell and his invalid mother, Billingsley and his alcoholic father, and Miles and his indulgent uncle, lust about half the film concerns these three young men and their home lives, offering a recent "history" of American families and a commentary on that popular abstraction, "family values."

Although there is some truth in reviewer Christopher Kelly's claim that the "players all have cheesy Hollywood 'demons' that must be conquered ... [they] seem to be collectively suffering from Sports Movie Cliche Syndrome" (7), what is considerably more important is the way Berg transforms the alleged cliches into poignant and complex human dramas that have no simple resolutions, easy redemptions, or unexpected, sentimental triumphs. As for Berg's handling of sociological and cultural issues, he applies light, suggestive touches to develop relationships, leaving his hammers at home. However, Berg uses fictional license in his narratives devoted to the three troubled young men, departing considerably from their representation by Bissinger.

The most demon-haunted of the three focal players is quarterback Mike Winchell, who cares for his widowed, invalid mother by himself and who carries Odessa's dream for a state title on his back like a teenage Atlas. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.