This gritty and unconventional high school football movie is the triumphant result of director Peter Berg’s uncompromising film adaptation of the 1990 non-fiction bestseller, Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team and a Dream, by journalist H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger (Shattered Glass). Although David Aaron Cohen’s (The Devil’s Own) screenplay falters briefly in a couple of scenes, Friday Night Lights flourishes due to its potent naturalistic acting from an ensemble of gifted actors led by Billy Bob Thornton as the put-upon coach of a West Texas small town (Odessa, Texas) football team. The film exactingly personifies American values of pride and ego in their lowest and highest manifestations. Billy Bob Thornton’s magnificently understated performance as Coach Gary Gaines rivals Kurt Russell’s similarly tempered role in this year’s Olympic hockey film, Miracle.
The first thing you notice about Friday Night Lights is its purposefully washed-out look that cinematographer Tobias Schliessler uses to capture heartland America in a documentary style that reflects the quietness and lonely desolation of the place. We get an immediate sense of the vast guarded nature of a culture vacuum where a local high school football team’s success is the only thing the populace can pin all of their hopes and dreams on. It’s the 1988 football season, and second year Permian High School coach Gary Gaines can’t go anywhere without getting advice from locals about how to lead the town’s team to victory at the upcoming Texas state championship.
Odessa’s Permian Panthers’ star running back is a cocky uber athlete named “Boobie” Miles (Derek Luke, Antwone Fisher) who has no doubts about his destiny in the pro football hall of fame, much less his ability to escape the choking confines of his small-town surroundings. The team’s toiling quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black, Slingblade), however, has more hesitation in his heart than he can begin to acknowledge even to himself. What the two players and everyone else on the Panthers team share is a dream for accomplishment that comes through the transparent guidance of their well-trusted coach.
An injury to Boobie’s left knee in an early season game forces Coach Gaines to harden his team with a desire for perfection from an individual perspective. After a tooth-and-nail struggle to compete in the state championships, a coin-toss decision pits the Permian Panthers against a team of intimidating oversized players on the Dallas Carter Cowboys team.
It’s within this David-and-Goliath struggle that the movie comes together during Coach Gaines’ half-time speech to his players in which he clarifies his definition of perfection that he’s used to guide them all season long. He says that perfection is when you can look each other in the eye and honestly say that you have done everything in your power to win with joy in your heart. He goes on to advise the players to put each other in their hearts forever, because forever is about to happen in the last half of the last football game most of them will ever play. The two quarters of play that follow are joyous and surprising for the humanity derived from an endeavor executed with best intentions and purity of heart. Winning and losing are shown to be equal aspects through the same prism of light. That doesn’t happen very often in the movies, especially Hollywood sports movies.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS ( * * * * )
Directed by Peter Berg
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Lucas Black
(Rated PG-13, 117 mins.)