Football and art join forces, evoke emotion

Kyle Smith

Let’s talk about beauty.

Not the obvious Naomi Watts kind of beauty. Nor the austerity of an impassioned foreign film. And definitely not the bombastic beauty of important period and war films.

Although I never would have guessed it, I found most beautiful cinematic moment of 2004 in “Friday Night Lights.”

The scene in question sees Odessa, Texas’, Permian Panthers high school football team embroiled in an intense playoff game against Dallas’ Carter Cowboys. Refs make a bad call against the Panthers, setting up a Cowboy touchdown.

After the player scampers into the end zone, a Panther linebacker, Brian Chavez, delivers a punishing cheap shot to the unwitting Cowboy.

It took everything I had to hold back my tears, my cheers, my confusion. This movie had said it all, showed me the breadth of human emotion and experience, and then it cut back to Billy Bob Thornton.

But damn it, when Chavez clocked that guy in the end zone, it was the very essence of poetic justice. Normally I am disgusted by senseless personal fouls in football, as they’re unnecessary and immature. Seeing those penalty flags fly and the Cowboy player flop on the ground made me a believer in the violence; it made me wish I had delivered the hit. It made me wish I was still 17. “Friday Night Lights” overcomes a significant structural deficiency — the main character is a football team — and makes you believe not just in the Panthers but in football and the cinema’s power to convey the real emotions we experience in life.

“Why make a movie about that book?” director Peter Berg told me in an interview with his cousin Buzz Bissinger who wrote the 1988 non-fiction book “Friday Night Lights.” “It’d be about failure.”

The NFL has professionalism, and college football has pageantry. High school sports have passion. Or as Berg puts it: “High school athletics are fascinating because it’s a last chance.”

I played high school football and, much like Uncle Rico in “Napoleon Dynamite,” I often wish I had a time machine to go back and relive those moments. Unlike Uncle Rico, I was not particularly good at football, so I’m not plagued by delusions of gridiron grandeur. What makes our predicament so powerfully sad is a nostalgic, pathetic love for that atmosphere of drama and athletic magnificence. I would never score a game-winning touchdown, but when I stood with my team on that field, steam rising from our heads in the cold Missouri fall, I felt sublime.

Of course I always describe these to bored, unwitting listeners as “like something out of a movie.” Football, more than any other sport, teaches its participants to idealize the game and worship its mythology. This is necessary because it’s the only way to capture the limited attention of a teenager, but also because football, like the cinema, can make mythology real.

“(High school athletes) are being asked to show these qualities: teamwork, courage, grace, poise. And it’s very exciting,” Berg said. His unironic elucidation of those tired, emotional nouns brings me back to what football is all about — and what makes “Friday Night Lights” so moving.

The movie has its inherent flaws — a general lack of focus and spotty character development stick out — but the film’s strengths are sensational. The visual style is occasionally obtrusive, but by seamlessly filming the domestic interactions like the football scenes, we understand the weight of the game on these kids. Perhaps the film’s riskiest move is an original score by Explosions in the Sky, a sparse post-rock group whose gentle compositions hold a whopping emotional impact, dwarfing the numbing rock and hip-hop of other recent football films.

“Friday Night Lights” understands the power of the moment in football, in film, and even, dare I say, in life. When Chavez decks that guy in the end zone, I didn’t know what to feel. I cheered his brutality, I cried for his impulsiveness, and ultimately, was confused by his action — furthermore, why was I feeling this while watching a football movie?

For a brief moment, in the unlikeliest of places, art fulfilled its ultimate promise: a vivid recreation of life in all its perplexing, contradictory glory. Heroism, cruelty, youth, passion, love, hate: all clich