Football is big in Texas. It's bigger than cattle, bigger than cowboy hats and even bigger than oil. And in many small Texas towns, Friday nights are the single most important aspect of life. Specifically, the Permian basin of west Texas, is captivated by some kind of voodoo-like spell -- a "mojo" if you will -- that has made this God-forsaken patch of dirt home to one of the most successful high school football programs in the country.
H.G. Bissinger's 1989 book, Friday Night Lights, did a tremendous job depicting the importance of high school football to the fabric of Texas society. Although it singled out a single Texas city, Odessa, it's not a stretch to say that its message embodies the spirit of all Texas towns and their close-knit relationship with football. By using actual west Texas imagery and by capitalizing on a few career performances, director Peter Berg accurately captures Bissinger's disturbing message on the big screen.
However, Berg does commit one of the two cardinal sins of making a great sports movie. Nothing neuters a sports movie faster than actors who don't move like athletes or on-the-field hits that are overly emphatic. Berg employed Allen Graf, one of Hollywood's premiere stunt coordinators, who put the 40-man squad of actors/extras (including many former college football players) through a grueling four-week football training camp to ensure realistic sports movement. But Berg couldn't resist the temptation to exaggerate the on-field football action by deploying extremely loud crunching noises and high-flying, overly brutal hits that usually end with a player spinning helicopter-style or end-over-end before winding up in a broken heap on the Astroturf. Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday was virtually ruined by this same syndrome, but to his credit Berg does show some restraint in Friday Night Lights.
Berg follows the formula of most great sports movies by narrowing the focus of his character development to a select few players and/or coaches. We meet the Permian Panthers' dedicated head coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) and only a handful of players. In several not-so-subtle scenes, we get a first-hand demonstration of how the pressure of winning rests squarely on Coach Gaines' shoulders. He struggles to keep his sense of perspective in the face of incessant reminders that his job is only as secure as the next Panther victory. After the team's first loss of the 1988 season, Gaines returns home to a yard full of "for sale" signs.
Realizing that he has a quality running back that only comes around once in a coach's career, Gaines builds his entire offense around the explosive ability of Booby Miles (Derek Luke). Exposing his intentions during one interview, Gaines informs the media of his meager expectations from quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black). "We will need Mike for exactly two seconds on every play -- the amount of time it takes for him to hand the ball off to Booby." After Booby blows out his knee early in the season, it becomes obvious that the heart and desires of a batch of no-name players will be put to the test.
Yes, Friday Night Lights is a great sports movie. But it's more appropriate to classify it among the best 2004 dramas. It's one that just happens to have sports at its heart. The film experiences most of its success in its disturbing depiction of adults living vicariously through their children. How the entire weight of a town is put on the shoulders of a gaggle of insecure, immature 17 and 18 year olds. Berg truly disgusts us with this display of human repugnance and neglectful parenting, but we still find ourselves on the edge of our seats rooting for each and every one of them.
Berg's reliance on the human aspect of the story could quite easily have crumbled were it not for the truly phenomenal acting performances turned in by everyone. Thornton's Gaines anchors the cast of super-charged and fractured personalities with the cool, calm demeanor of a man that is, despite the pressures heaped upon his shoulders, more bent on doing the right thing, than he is on winning. We truly believe that Gaines was more driven by his desire to create perfect young men than he was on meeting the expectations of parents and school officials. And that only comes from Thornton's convincing depiction of Gaines as a true politician, able to convincingly play both sides of the fence.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated PG-13 for thematic issues, sexual content, language, some teen drinking and rough sports action.)
Review also posted on www.franksreelreviews.com.