Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 6, 2004
Billy Bob Thornton runs the offense with Lee Thompson Young and Lucas Black, while Derek Luke looks on in ‘Friday Night Lights.’ (photo by Ralph Nelson)
Friday Night Lights
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, and Derek Luke. Directed by Peter Berg. Written by David Aaron Cohen and Peter Berg, based on H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s book. Rated PG-13.
Running Out the Clock

Texas high-school football players melt in the heat of Friday Night Lights.


For a genre that generally doesn’t win much respect, sports movies have had a pretty good year. Miracle, Wimbledon, and Mr. 3000 weren’t able to transcend the conventional traps, but they all were redeemed to different extents by their star turns, and the first two also by moderately creative directors filming sports that haven’t been overexposed at the cinema. And that’s not even counting Shaolin Soccer, which is simply the funniest comedy in the last five years, on sports or any other subject.

Now comes the hotly anticipated Friday Night Lights, based on H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s best-selling book chronicling the 1988 football season of the Permian High School Panthers in Odessa, a highly rated team despite talent that’s inferior to the big city schools’ and the one source of pride for a bleak Texas oil boomtown that’s gone bust. Though it was written 16 years ago, the book still seems to encapsulate everything that’s right and wrong with our love of sports, the way our passion for the drama of athletic competition can flavor our everyday lives, and the way it can make us lose perspective and invest too much in a group of young men or boys. That passion isn’t a Texas thing or even necessarily an American thing — go to any small town in Italy and see how the locals feel about their soccer team.

For those who’ve read the book, the characters will be familiar: Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), the lightning rod for criticism, who carefully prepares his team to overachieve; Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), the gifted but too tightly wound quarterback; Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), the mistake-prone running back living in his father’s shadow; Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez), the tight end/safety whose struggle to be accepted into Harvard University receives much less publicity than what he does on the field; and Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), the high-riding star running back who rudely discovers how replaceable he is after tearing up his knee.

Some of the facts are fudged — Permian’s big game against Dallas-Carter High was a semifinal rather than a final — and the character of the taciturn defensive leader Ivory Christian (Lee Jackson) bears little resemblance to the conflicted person that Bissinger describes. These changes are dwarfed, though, by the way the movie omits or glosses over many of the unflattering aspects of high-school football detailed in the book: the school’s relative neglect of educational standards, the tetchy race relations between Permian’s black players and its predominantly white fan base, the permissive attitude taken by adults that gave players an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, the fact that Coach Gaines was taking money under the table from alumni.

Even without these, the picture that emerges of this high-school athletic program is still pretty grim. Mike seems prematurely aged by the stress (Black is 22 and looks closer to 40), and Don’s home life is made hellish by his dad Charlie (country music star Tim McGraw, giving a creditable performance), a legendary ex-Permian player who’s aged into a mean drunk. In one queasy scene, Charlie catches his son in mid-sex with a girl and hits on her. Meanwhile, Coach Gaines finds “For Sale” signs planted on his front yard after one of the school’s two regular-season losses, and his cheerful encounters with alumni come with veiled threats like, “It’ll be better for you if we win.”

Director/co-writer Peter Berg convincingly evokes an atmosphere of pressure so intense that when Permian wins, it’s cause for relief rather than joy. He approaches this material with unique perspectives, as a former high-school football player himself and a distant relative of Bissinger’s. In sharp contrast to the visual slickness and knockabout silliness of his previous film, The Rundown, he takes a high-minded attitude, and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler gives the movie a nice, gritty look — the games, with the exception of the climactic contest, aren’t shot in the prettified way that Hollywood filmmakers usually film football games.

Despite all this, the movie gives an overall impression similar to Remember the Titans. It’s a tough assignment, doing justice to the negative side of high school football and then showing us why people love it anyway. A more ambitious filmmaker with a wider vision like Michael Mann could have pulled it off. Berg and collaborator David Aaron Cohen don’t find the right balance, and the movie’s big-game climax is uplifting in the same way as too many other sports movies (though Charlie’s conciliatory gesture to his son at the end is shiver-inducingly good). Friday Night Lights is a movie with quite a bit to recommend it. However, its success is a limited one, and seeing its limitations is as easy as picking up a book.

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