Hope Shines Brightest Beneath the Lights

Watching the climactic championship football game which closes out 2004’s Friday Night Lights (Peter Berg), I found myself sucked into the outcome of this battle. The Odessa Permian Panthers, our heroes, are losing against their rivals, the Dallas Carter Cowboys, and they only have one final play to win it all. The music swelled, the drama unfolded, and I truly believed that maybe they could turn it around and win the game. 

The only problem was I had seen this movie before, and I knew they lost in the end. This was a scripted piece of content, the outcome would be the same each time. Despite knowing that, I still felt more joy in letting the hope overtake me than contending with the truth. Even if it was illogical, even if ultimately it was merely a distraction from reality, that hope felt good. It felt fulfilling and full of life. That right there is the dilemma at the center of Friday Night Lights: the way that false hope holds people together.Peter Berg’s film adaptation of H.G. Bissinger’s non-fiction novel, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, follows the 1988 season of the Permian High School football team in Odessa, Texas. Unlike the much looser and slightly more optimistic later 2006 TV series adaptation, the film follows the original novel’s critique of Odessa’s seemingly unhealthy relationship with high school football. It’s established from the onset that Odessa values football as a career path and as an institution far more than anything traditional. The school remains underfunded while its football stadium shines with the glamour of the greatest major league playing grounds. The brand new team coach, Gary Gaines, is paid a higher salary than the principal. The players are encouraged to strive towards athletic scholarships as means of advancement, and spend their time studying the correct answers to give college recruiters, rather than those on the SATs. When team all-star, James “Boobie” Miles,—who speaks of himself in third-person with the same confidence as baseball legend Rickey Henderson—is asked how his grades are, he responds, “straight As.” He clarifies: “There’s only one subject, it’s football.”

Odessa has no identity. So the people latch onto the one thing they have available to them, the one thing that can provide them any sort of relevance on the world stage: their high school football team. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, an ouroboros of loving football so much as to give them something to live for, then only living for the game. The town essentially shuts down during Friday evenings, with all businesses closing their doors and putting up signs indicating they’re at the game. When the finals roll around, the entire population of Odessa packs up and makes the nearly eight hour drive all the way down to Houston. There’s no “if” in regards to watching a game or not; it’s an expectation. And do they even enjoy it? Is there any appreciation for the merits of the game? The around-the-clock talk news show about high school football only serves as a constant criticism at all hours of the day. Adults consistently offer unwanted advice to the teenagers they meet in town on how to better themselves in the game. It’s the equivalent of the parent who gets far too intense at their child’s baseball game, but magnified a hundred fold. Coach Gaines gives a rousing speech in the locker room at their championship game, espousing the values of the sport as a means of enjoyment above all else. But the ears this lesson falls on aren’t those who need to be convinced otherwise. It’s the thousands of people seated in the stands of the stadium just outside these walls, the ones whose whole identities rest on the outcome of this match, who should hear this. And when the Permian Panthers lose, the emotion is less heartbreak and more vague disappointment. While the players on the field break down into tears, the adult viewers simply sit in stunned silence. The players need to contemplate the rest of their lives, while the rest of Odessa needs to contend with what to fill their daily time with now that the joy of football is no longer a factor.

The false hope is not only within Odessa, but outside, as well. Football is seen as the only feasible means of a stimulating future for these kids, and is pitched to them as such, but the evidence proves to point otherwise. While winning the state championship is constantly touted as the means to escape Odessa, many of the adults still living in town continue to sport their championship rings. A man gives his baby to quarterback Mike Winchell for a photo, in the hopes of giving her a lasting memory when Winchell eventually makes it big, ignoring that the man himself still wears his own ring, firmly still rooted in Odessa. Fullback Don Billingsley is constantly hounded by his father Charles, a destructive alcoholic whose championship success is the only anchor he has to hold on to. 

When Boobie suffers a career ending leg injury early on, he is utterly shattered. There’s no alternative futures for him, everything in his being was preparing for a life of football. It’s a relatable feeling—to fashion your whole journey towards one career path, only to have a major setback derail the possibility and leave you introspective as to who you are and what your life even constitutes. But whether this dream was one of Boobie’s own making, or one pushed upon him by the town and his manager-esque uncle L.V. to such an extent that he was forced to believe it, is a realization only he can come to. Boobie later watches the garbage collectors in his neighbourhood as he contemplates his future, though it’s unclear if this moment is meant as his acceptance of the inevitability of Odessa’s reality, or a critique from his perspective of public workers while he believes he can still rise above.

Odessa is painted as a blip on the face of the world map, an empty, barren place that just so happened to have people move in and inhabit it. Its culture is never well defined, its tenets are lacking, and its livelihood seems to be bolstered by being a place of mining and oil-rigging. The film opens with disparate shots of open fields and giant undefined pieces of machinery sucking the lifeblood from beneath the ground, a familiar site that continues to be dotted throughout the movie. Hang-out spots seem scarce, with a local bustling diner and house parties being the only places for youthful mingling. Malls seem to be unheard of, and the most exotic location is a Walmart, which itself isn’t even safe from the influence of football, as Coach Gaines is vaguely threatened in the parking lot about what may happen if he doesn’t lead the team to victory. There’s no alternative art or culture, the success of football is the only outlying hope in a sea of emptiness.

The questions remain: Is holding onto one singular facet of this time as a means of hopefulness really a bad thing? Is their unabashed love for football truly the sickness it’s painted to be? Why must it be so wrong to latch onto something, to jerry-rig some fashion of meaning for a community that has nothing else?

The people of Odessa, Texas are probably more than their relationship with high school football. But the lengths they go to to forge their bond with the sport, to lift it beyond a game and into an institution, paints it as their whole reason to be. It is a false hope manifested by their willingness to find meaning in a city abandoned by the eccentricities of grander living. It nurtures the idea that somebody, anybody from Odessa, can find greater meaning, a true success story somewhere inside its borders. To lead them elsewhere. It gives them something to strive towards, a reason to wake up in the morning and to go to sleep at night with a plan beyond the primal mechanics of staying alive. Knowing that by this time next Friday, they will get to hope again.

Categories: