Friday, October 08, 2004

Friday Night Lights

Do me a personal favor: Don't go see Friday Night Lights, the move version of the book of the same name, until I give the go ahead. I can't think of another movie that could possibly ever be made that I'd ask for such veto power (one about Pararescue training, maybe), but on this one, I'm asking.

Here's why I'm the expert: Within .03 milliseconds of seeing the movie poster for the first time (or actually, seeing a TV ad depicting the scene the poster is taken from ) I knew the players were wearing the wrong numbers. ("wrong," from this point forward, meaing "different from the book").
Now, I admit I know this just by coincidence - the actual book jacket shows the backs of three players, the right two of which are wearing 85 and 62 - which was (and still is) the final four numbers of my parent's phone number in Colorado, a number I've known longer than I've known my own SSN, so it kinda leapt out at me.
But the point is, I've read, re-read, studied and devoured that book so many times over, there isn't a detail you can bring up I don't know. In many ways, it remains the defining book of my personal adult life - after staying up all night as a college freshman to read it, it sent me spinning professionally towards sports writing, politically away from strict conservative points of view and physically towards Philadelphia.
And I have been dreading for 15 years the day this book became a movie. Now they've done it. But I demand first-refusal.

And I promise to be fair - as long as they don't give it the Perfect Storm treatment - inventing comic action at the expense of the book's best passages - I'll give you the go ahead. I don't need The Football Godfather. I just want a respectful translation. I don't expect a Hollywood studio - with stars and a budget and not a single high school athlete on its crew - to copy the exact dialogue of the book, to convey 80 years of segregation, to properly capture the weight of the Midland Lee game. Or make a sweep for a gain of 2 look unrehearsed. Or even get the extras to have a decent Texas accent. I'm resigned to a solid helping of fat-guy cliches (you know, the smiling, jackass fat kid choked up to talk to the pretty girl, or something). I know absolutely nobody's "we win!" face is going to look anything like a real "we win!" face

Damn - I said it. Now I gotta have a quick rant: along with Hollywood soldiers' everlasting inability to properly salute, the industry's consistent failure to produce a decent "we win" face remains one of the great mysteries of film. Hollywood's Joyful Response research facilities being sabotaged by Norwegian commandos like they Nazi's heavy water plant? The "we win" faces of Varsity Blues showed no advancement in the art over Reagan's in Knute Rockne All American. Will the next star wars have painted tincans on strings with sparklers for engines? So why can't Hollywood capture a decent "Wide Right!" reaction?
And here's the worst part: nobody throws one arm in the air and goes, "Yeah!" with eyes straight ahead. Nobody even does that watching a game on TV. Nobody does that watching Jeopardy. People in the stands of a real game they are emotionally invested in CERTAINLY don't. There's nothing controlled about the reaction to a dramatic, one-play win. It's focused panic. Arms go wide, or at least uplifted, and eyes and faces dart in a million directions because there's a better-than-25-percent chance that you're about to fall over. Remember one of those Brett Favre wins where, watching the final kick from the sideline, he came sprinting onto the field with his arms out in the airplane, his face dripping with fear? That's "we win." More often than not, a crowd lunges forward. Where do you think the storm-the-field/court thing comes from? People can't help it. You just have to get closer, arms wide to embrace it. WE WIN!
Basicly, the "we win!" face is not much different from the "holy shit, tear gas!" face. It certainly isn't the "Winger Rocks!" face, which is the only thing Hollywood ever gives us.

End Rant. but I'll be watching.

So FNL has been relentlessly promoted not on its own merit but on the fact that Sports Illustrated once called FNL "one of the greatest sports stories ever told" which is deceptive on two fronts.
1 - SI wouldn't know a great sports story unless it showed up on it's writer's expense account.
2 - The story was so good for reasons that absolutely defy movie making - the story was good because it was about race, class, anticipation, pacing, a great deal of luck and - in no small part - because HG Bissinger is an obscenely talented reporter and writer.
None of those things translate well - or at all - to film. Certainly not to a film released in the middle of football season.
Consider this: it takes FNL 50 pages to walk the team - and hence, the transfixed reader - through the collision of worlds that occured surrounding the Dallas-Carter football team in 1988. Keep in mind, the book is 'about' Odessa's Permian high school, not Carter. But as Odessa made its run at state that year, on the other side of the bracket, Carter, an all black school, beat an all-white team (Plano East) in the playoffs. It then emerged that at least two of Carter's players had been passed in classes they clearly flunked when a principal changed thier grades, over the objections of a 20-year career English teacher who thought football players get too many breaks.
So Plano East, losers on the field, then sued, claiming Carter was ineligible, got an injunction and - if i recall correctly - actually played the next playoff game, and won. Carter then counter-sued, got a second injunction and was back in the playoffs instead of Plano East.
The racial (and suburb-vs-city class) overtones of the battle were lost on exactly no one, particularly not on 300-miles from nowhere, overwhelmingly white Odessa.
This all really happened. It's easily the book's best (and, for Bissinger, luckiest) parts. Bissinger brings in decades old school-reform efforts, Ross Perot taking on the football barrons over eligibility rules, and the ever-present spectre of segregation.
And it all got sorted out just in time for Carter to meet Odessa in the state semis.
(emphasis 'semis' - i've read two reviews so far which state the movie puts the showdown in the state finals, though that could easily be a reviewer's mistake).

Now, I went to the trouble of laying all that out so that you can ask yourself: how is that going to translate into a movie? Have some newscaster take the screen and give you a quick synopsis of it, then cut to the Carter-Odessa sideline?
That would be a disservice I could't tolerate.
It's a 2-hour movie. They can give 5 minutes to a microcosm of Texas - and hence, american - educational reform before getting back to the AC/DC soundtrack.

The same is true of the book's other 'big game' the showdown with hated rival Midland Lee. Midland, as in, George Dubya's Midland. The Have Town to Odessa's Have Not.
In a year - 88 - when a Bush was running for re-election.
The structure of the collision - Odessa vs Midland, have vs have-not, oilmen vs redneck, capital vs labor - is probably the closest thing the book has to a thesis.
Is that worth 10 minutes of backstory?

Probably not.
What the movie is likely to be about - fairly - is the five or six characters on the team that dominate the book. Or rather, 5 players and the coach, played by Billy Bob Thorton. And they certainly fit Hollywood - the black star running back who blows a knee, the white punk running back with the bad dad, the white QB with a confidence problem, the spanish tight end bound for Harvard, and the coach, a good man under unbearable pressure and the shadow of his mythic predeccesor.
That sounds like a great football movie, particularly with the two big games. I see great possibility for a James Horner soundtrack.
No reason in the world why you have to drag my book into it.
But they did.
And since they did, they had better pay the rest of it - or rather, the real parts of it - the proper respect.

So let me go see it, and i'll let you know.

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