“Friday Night Lights” is the “Black Hawk Down” of high school football movies. As exclusively as Ridley Scott’s picture was about combat, this film concerns football and nothing but. Similarly: It’s often hard to tell the characters apart due to all the gear they’re wearing, the script doesn’t go deeply into their lives, and the film even has a brownish desaturated look. You’ve got to be really into football to crank up much interest in this account of one Texas high school team’s year — but that should spell very good commercial prospects throughout Middle America for this Universal release. Pic will have to earn its coin domestically, however, as overseas outlook is bleak.
Among its intended audience, this close-up look at football as a religion arrives with anticipation based on the continued popularity of its source, H.G. Bissinger’s 1990 bestseller “Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream.” In documenting the 1988 season of the Odessa-Permian High School gridiron squad, Bissinger got to the heart of how the local football team is the be-all and end-all for many towns across the nation and how, for most who play, it remains the most cherished moment in their lives.
This mania can be viewed in two ways, as inspiring or pathetic, and director-scenarist Peter Berg and co-writer David Aaron Cohen are clearly cognizant of both perspectives. The initial reels reflect the latter aspect more, as shots of the oil-derrick-pocked West Texas flatlands and tattered townscapes, all put in dismal relief by the glittering modern football stadium, suggest a bleak life sentence that demands escape, on a weekly basis in autumn for football fans and permanently for anyone who can devise a way out.
Early scenes deepen this sense of a barren existence. Aside from the punishing practice sessions the varsity players begin in August, there are desultory visits to the local drive-in burger joint and a teen party, where a tart challenges introverted quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) about his manhood. At adult gatherings, the only subject of conversation is football and how second-year coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) had better “win State” or else.
The Permian Panthers know they have a physically small team, but they also have Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), a cocky running back who knows he’s better than any player any other team can field. “All I got to do is show up,” boasts Boobie, who runs the opposition into the ground in the first game until suffering a knee injury.
As the team grinds to a 5-1 record, Boobie sits out, insisting he’ll be OK soon. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Boobie finally submits to an MRI and gets the news that his ligament injury is so bad he should never play again. For a hotshot whose entire future — college and, inevitably in his mind, the pros — hinges on football, this prospect is so unacceptable that he refuses it, lying to Coach Gaines and everyone else that he’s ready to go. What happens when he returns to the field drives the stake of reality into him for good.
This sobering development injects an undercurrent of melancholy into the win-at-all-costs genuflecting embraced by the community, as does the relationship between Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) and his bitter drunken dad Charles (country music performer Tim McGraw). One of the many Odessa fathers who wear rings stemming from the team’s previous four state championships, Charles lords this over his son every day and doesn’t hesitate to charge onto the practice field to chew out his boy whenever he drops the ball.
As telling as these developments may be, they stand out in a portrait that is overwhelmingly superficial and impressionistic. Berg and lenser Tobias Schliessler, who previously teamed on the lively adventure romp “The Rundown,” here adopt jittery mannerisms that echo hand-held documentaries and naturalistic British working-class dramas, snatching a little conversation here, a look or a gesture there. It all seems rather affected and tends to discourage involvement with the characters.
Given the West Texas setting and the concentration on about a half-dozen young characters and an adult mentor, one can hardly help thinking of “The Last Picture Show.” “Friday Night Lights” had the potential to achieve a measure of the depth and poignancy of that film, but its stylistic approach and disinterest in investigating the young characters’ emotional lives, except where their football prospects are concerned, prevents it from going very far in that direction.
Inevitably, however, there’s a surge in momentum through the playoffs and into the Texas state championship game, which occupies a quarter of the film’s nearly two-hour running time. Playing in Houston’s enormous Astrodome, the Panthers find themselves up against the Dallas Carter Cowboys, a strutting, punishing, all-black team whose enormous players look NFL-ready. Climax is a crunching, brutal, David-and-Goliath affair with a surprising ending for veterans of Cinderella-story sports movies and anyone not familiar with the real events (aspects of the Panthers’ season were somewhat altered for dramatic purposes).
Also somewhat surprising is the personality of Coach Gaines. One would normally expect an army-style, given-’em-hell type to lead one of Texas’ top sports programs. But in addition to expressing the man’s determined side — Gaines gives peculiar importance to his players achieving a state of personal perfection — Thornton emphasizes the man’s uncertainties and his need to deflect the town boosters’ single-minded focus on victory. Performance thus nicely undercuts some of the rah-rah aspects of the story.
Luke very capably conveys Boobie’s arrogance as well as his subsequent devastation over, and ultimate acceptance of, his cruel fate. Black holds the screen nicely despite having been given very little to play with, while the strained father-son interchanges enacted by Hedlund and McGraw are one-note and over-the-top. Grover Coulson does a lot with his limited moments as Boobie’s uncle and guardian.
The soaring, all-immersing electronic-rock backgrounding by the Austin group Explosions in the Sky proves overbearing as often as not. Production values feel authentic down the line, while second unit director and stunt coordinator Allan Graf, who demonstrated his football chops on “Any Given Sunday,” does so again here.
Pic is dedicated to the memory of Alan J. Pakula, who was planning to direct this film when he died in 1998.