Friday Night Lights
Directed by Peter Berg. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw, Lee Thompson Young, Grover Coulson, Connie Britton. (2004, PG-13, 117 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 8, 2004
It’s taken several years and several screenplay drafts for H.G. Bissinger’s now-classic book about the secular religion of high school football to come to the screen. This retooling has no doubt been a good thing since the final film does a good job of capturing the small-town mania that draws breath from the fortunes of its school team and knows no greater good than the winning of the state championship. This is the heart of the book and the movie: the portrait of Odessa, Texas – home of the Permian High School Panthers and their devoted fans. The team has won four state championships in the past, and in the fall of 1988 (the time during which the story based on true events takes place) the boys in black are striving for the fifth. And they had better come home with the trophy if they know what’s good for them … and their community. Losing isn’t an option – not in a town where many of the boys’ fathers wear championship rings and where the flat prairie land and tapped-out oil derricks loom on the horizon and offer few other avenues for accomplishment or escape. Friday Night Lights effectively keeps its attention focused on football, and, in fact, a whole quarter of the movie is given over to the team’s final championship game in Houston’s Astrodome. The game footage is as engrossing as the real thing, although it comes at the expense of diminished attention to the teen players and their emotional problems. The characters are barely individuated, and it doesn’t help that the players are covered up by uniforms and helmets for much of the time. The film’s biographical taglines at the end, which inform us what each student did after high school, come as something of a surprise since we’re never given enough narrative material to build bonds with the players so that we might care what they have accomplished in their post-Panthers careers. Given the slight character material that they have to work with, the young actors all deliver solid performances. Thornton is also excellent as Coach Gary Gaines, whose pinched demeanor (except on the field) suggests the pressure resting on him as well as the student athletes to live up to Odessa’s expectations. In his film debut, Tim McGraw acquits himself well as the verbally abusive, alcoholic faded champion of a father to one of the players. Filmed onsite in Odessa and Austin, the film also makes use of Austin band Explosions in the Sky for much of the background music. Director Berg’s visual choices feature a desaturated color palette and an abundance of close-ups, many of which seem to be hand-held, which also helps to keep the emphasis on the details of the games (of which there are many). The movie’s tone vacillates between sympathy and scorn for the town boosters and overly ardent relatives, which leaves the movie without a clear point of view about the whole Friday-night phenomenon. Viewers will be able to read into the do-or-die philosophy whatever they choose, and in the meantime simply enjoy this big-screen ode to the madness.