Friday Night Lights

October, 2004, Drama

In the wake of Disney's surprising box office success four years ago with Remember The Titians, (focused on the trials of integrating a high school athletic team) it's not hard to understand why H.G. Bissinger's book--analyzing the grip team sports possesses in small-town America-- found its way onto the screen. The setting is Odessa Texas, the team the Permian High Panthers and the subject is football. 

Not football as a game, but as a way of life; Bissinger's book wonderfully captured the compulsive fascination an entire town can develop when its local high school successfully makes a run for that year's state championship. Different parts of the country focus on different sports, (in Indiana its basketball, immortalized in Hoosiers) but the phenomenon is the same; players get worshiped by their classmates and indulged by the community's adults, coaches become the subject of adoration and endless second-guessing by those who know little of the game, college talent scouts come out of the woodwork and former student athletes, long out of the spotlight of their own accomplishments, lament the passing of what in retrospect turned out to be the highlight of their lives. Presented properly, all this is simultaneously funny, sad and not a little frightening.

B-movie actor-turned-director Peter Berg captures this kaleidoscope of reactions with spot-on dialogue by his film's bit players, but the movie's central focus on real-life coach Gary Gaines, (Billy Bob Thornton) and his three star players never rises above the level of cliché. One's a feckless black hotshot injured early in the season, the second a beleaguered running back excoriated by his drunken father for not playing more aggressively and the last a shy quarterback trying to find a way out of the stifling confines of blue collar Odessa by using athletics as a spring board to a college scholarship. Bones get broken, faces bloodied and games lost, but little occurs that isn't telegraphed well in advance of the final credits, which record the subsequent histories of the principals as they leave high school and venture out into the larger world. 

Thornton delivers a fine, understated performance as a coach who doesn't take himself too seriously even through everyone else does, while country and western singer Tim McGraw excels as the boozy former high school star bullying his son over the latter's performance, but the rest of the cast doesn't rise above the level of the ordinary. Berg over utilizes jump cuts and a deafening soundtrack in an attempt to instill a sense of deeper significance to the proceedings, but only succeeds in delivering an annoyingly mannered finished product. His material is at war with his directorial style; Bissinger's examination of a winning season suggests that after all the noise and shouting, nothing of real significance occurs; kids graduate and just get on with the rest of their lives while coaches and townspeople gear up for the next season. If he'd made that more modest (and accurate) point, this film would have been much better.


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