Friday Night Lights

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/18/05 11:39:40

"Why yes, I am indeed ready for some football, thanks for asking."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

There are no underdogs in “Friday Night Lights,” no retarded waterboys, no undersized rookies, no ragtag group of hopeful anybodies. This is instead a sports movie that defies sports movie conventions, simply by telling the tale of a team that was expected to make it to the championship game and does. Why, then, tell the tale, if it offers little chance for overcoming obstacles, the cornerstone of any solid sports flick? Well, because it’s still a damn fine story, that’s why; a straightforward chronicle of a year in the life of a football town makes, surprisingly enough, for one thrilling true story.

The film, adapted from the popular book by H.G. Bissinger, is the account of the 1988 Permian Panthers, a team from one of those small Texas towns where high school football reigns, where the field is a multimillion dollar stadium, where the coach collects a bigger salary than the principal. I’ve never understood this kind of ferver (it’s only a game, right?), but “Friday Night,” along with the equally engaging 2003 documentary “Go Tigers!,” shines a fascinating light on the subject, making it compelling to both the lifelong football fanatic and the rest of us as well.

Here we have a town where locals stop to get their picture taken with the senior quarterback, most of them former football stars themselves, still dreaming of past victories, their present lives a letdown. No character is more let down than Charles Billingsley (Tim McGraw), former top athlete and current resident drunk, whose hopes of reliving his glory days through his son (Garrett Hedlund) aren’t going so well when the son becomes famous for his fumbles. There’s a scene early in the movie in which the dad storms onto the practice field to berate his son; that everyone, including the other adults, turns a blind eye to this action is telling of the attitudes of the town.

There is a lot of sadness that runs through the story, from the aforementioned former players (“This is the only thing you’re ever going to have,” one of them tells the students, a most depressing sentiment from men unable to move on in life) to the students themselves, who must withstand the growing pressures from parents, friends, and the community in general. When one star suffers a knee injury early in the season, it sets off a series of emotions that can only come from a young man certain that every dream he has ever held dear will never come true.

It’s a distressing situation for a community to create such crushing stress like this on a regular basis, and yet “Friday Night” does not overwhelm the viewer with commentary on the matter. The storytelling is more matter-of-factly, screenwriters Peter Berg (who also directed) and David Aaron Cohen realizing that the problems of the town will be obvious enough, a straight-forward approach all that’s required to study the community’s soul.

And yet the film is not dark or cynical in its approach to the subject; on the contrary, “Friday Night” also serves as a celebration of the game. Watching these boys overcome the pressures of high expectations and merely play the sport they love makes for great drama all its own, the darker stuff merely part of a larger picture. Berg directs the game sequences with great enthusiasm, and with editors Colby Parker, Jr., and David Rosenbloom helping mold the style, there’s a you-are-there sensation that gets the blood pumping. With its sharp balance of high-energy game footage and low-key behind-the-scenes drama, this becomes the rousing football movie “Any Given Sunday” failed to be.

I should also mention, if only briefly, Billy Bob Thornton’s role as Coach Gaines. Thornton brings a humanity to the role - and to the overall film - especially in the later scenes, when we get to fully understand the lines coaches must draw between their words on the field (“Can you be perfect?” Gaines asks of his team) and their life off it. Here is a man who’s far more down to earth than the town leaders that surround him. Along with Kurt Russell’s spin in “Miracle,” 2004 has been a great year for sports movies that dig deep into the hearts and minds of what it takes to be a coach.

Of course, Thornton’s is not the only fine performance here; “Friday Night” features an excellent cast of fresh faces, a few of which you may recognize (Derek Luke, Lucas Black, Jay Hernandez), many more you may not. It’s this young cast that ultimately carries the picture, gives it both its drive and its heart. And Berg’s movie is a film with plenty of both, a ripping sports drama that’s bound to earn repeat viewings for a long time to come.

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