The Friday Night Lights book produced a great family drama, a very good high school movie (if you count Varsity Blues), and a very good sports movie. That final game!
The movie hews much closer to the basic facts of the book than the show. Maybe the TV show better captures its spirit, but the movie does benefit from the verisimilitude of reality. Who would come up with a coin toss to get into the playoffs?
Watch Varsity Blues or FNL and you might get the impression that Odessa is nestled in green, rolling hills. (Yes, Texas does have green and does have rolling hills.) But Odessa is past the green and the hills, past settled Texas, out in the ugly brown anvil of oil derrick-spotted west Texas. The Friday Night Lights production crew drove out of Austin and, unlike those other two, they kept driving all the way to Odessa. The real Ratliff stadium is more imposing than anything on Varsity Blues or FNL.
Featuring: A quarterback whose accent isn’t unintentionally hilarious (Texans don’t speak with southern accents, but it’s still better than whatever James Van Der Beek was doing). Tim McGraw, channeling his best Dwight Yoakam from Sling Blade. Jay Hernandez and Lee Jackson, who were a lot less excited to be cast as Brian Chavez and Ivory Christian after they read the script.
Three actors from the movie would return for FNL by my count. Brad Leland, who would reprise his role as a key booster, this time a little goofier and a little less sinister. Connie Britton, who would reprise her role as the coach’s wife, this time in a speaking role (only with a different coach at a different team). And Tim Crowley, a college football official who plays a ref in the state finals in the movie and one of the assistant coaches in the show (he is the one coach who follows Coach Taylor to East Dillon).
The runtime demands of a film means the story winds up heavily, heavily condensed. Only Boobie, Billingsley, and Mike Winchell get proper arcs. The story suffers from being squeezed into two hours, but Berg can say a lot with a few lingering shots—an early shot of little black boys wearing #45 jerseys chasing after Boobie contrasts with an injured Boobie watching a black man collect trash.
The comparison to Hoosiers: both tell a great (true) sports story, but both also show the dark side of a small town obsession with high school sports. This is fair, and enriches both works, as far as it goes. But if small towns have problems, those problems aren’t limited to football-mad towns with a rich tradition of success. My hometown has a lot of the same problems, and our high school football teams have more usually been wretched. And if Odessa (which isn’t really a small town) has particular problems of its own—and it surely does—it isn’t clear those problems are tied all that tightly to Permian football (or even at all). My thinking on this was changed to a degree by a feature included with the blu-ray on the true story. The feature includes footage from the 1988 season and, more relevant for our purposes, interviews with the real Winchell, Boobie, Billingsley, and Chavez (nobody cares about poor Jerrod McDougal). They come off as exceedingly . . . normal. I don’t know that they are any different from any other minute little average slice of America, only they have this one brilliant moment they can always treasure. The movie is perhaps a little over salutary, sure, but the book was very much the opposite. (Boobie and Chavez did wind up having legal trouble after the movie was made.)
Friday Night Lights improves on rewatch because it is so dang emotionally rich. You really feel for those kids. Perhaps because Friday Night Lights is the rare sports movie that doesn’t end in a victory. Sometimes it really is how you play the game.