Review: Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights is an adaptation of journalist H.G. Bissinger's bestselling book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream. The Permian Panthers of Odessa are the winningest high school football team in Texas history, and Bissinger chronicled their 1988 season. I haven't read the book, but from what I've read about it, the movie pares down the breadth of the book and focuses on Odessa's high school football obsession, only hinting at other socioeconomic issues. With just that story to tell, and with a dash of Hollywood fairy tale dust (some documented here), the movie seizes the audience's emotional strings and tugs. Hard.
The movie unwinds expeditiously. The movie opens and It's football preseason, and the players roll up to Ratliff Stadium in the late summer Texas heat. The sun is so blinding it bakes the color out of the landscape. We meet the key players: Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), the star running back. Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), the quarterback whose athletic peak will always be to be a winning high school quarterback and who has the burden of an ailing mother at home. Don Billingsley, the fullback who can never live up to the expectations of his alcoholic father Charles Billingley (Tim McGraw) who himself won a state championship at Permian 20 years ago and wears his state championship ring like a war medal. Ivory Christian is the silent but driven defensive lineman and a dead ringer for Joe Dumars, down to his quiet demeanor. And the coach under fire, Gary Gaines, who bears the burden of the community's obsession with winning at all costs and struggles not to pass those costs on to his young players.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Coach Gaines with a pitch perfect control. I tried to think of another actor who could have played this West Texas high school football coach any better, and no one came to mind.
I won't give away any major plot points. The season and story unfold with familiar twists and turns for anyone who has seen football movies or grown up in a suburb consumed by high school football. Players and coaches alike struggle to handle the pressure which engulfs them at every turn in the small town that few will escape. Most scenes are shot close and tight, even the sports scenes, emphasizing the claustrophobia the actual townspeople feel. Young players who make mistakes on the ball field are berated by parents and coaches and classmates, and of course the local sports radio station is deluged at all hours by angry callers second questioning the coach and team. A player who endures serious injury is in denial, and family and coaches knowingly join him in his denial in sending him back on the field at the expense of his health. The football scenes are, as in most movies, elevated to that particular level of exaggeration that fails the test of documentarian realism but passes the one of cinematic and emotional impact. Quarterback Winchell is crushed after every pass by defenders who fly into him sideways like torpedoes--if he'd been hit like that in real life they'd still be prying his teeth out of the turf. Some tacklers fly out of the sky at angles that suggest they were launched out of a circus cannon.
As I mentioned before, the movie only hints at some broader socioeconomic issues. Many of the players live in single parent homes. We detect hints of racial divisions in the town and within the team, some of which may be economically echoed in the geography of town, but the screenplay doesn't amplify them. These hints linger as omens casting shadows over the movie's uplifting moments, even after you leave the theater.
What elevates the movie is the nuance the actors bring to each character. Everyone who could be a stock football movie character type displays enough complexity to be human. Coach Gaines is alternately chilling, as in a speech trying to motivate/antagonize Winchell at his home, sympathetic, as when accosted by the near psychotic team announcers in a grocery store parking lot, and moving, during a halftime speech at the movie's end that gave me goosebumps.
And the movie passes the test I give all sports movies, and that is whether or not it makes me want to run out of the theater and go play that particular sport. I was ready to don some pads, run stadium stairs, and play some tackle football. The woman in front of me in the theater was alternately whooping and hollering at the screen, clapping at plays as if the football game were real, and sobbing like a baby.
When I was in high school, on Friday nights in the autumn, everyone headed to the high school football stadium. Naperville wasn't as football-obsessed as Odessa, so many of us went just to socialize, but it did feel like there was no other place in town to be. From all over town, we could see the towering lights at the football stadium calling us there like airport runway lights. On other nights of the week, we'd cruise around town in someone's car, music blasting, wondering when we could escape beyond the confines of the cornfields and strip malls to see the world beyond, but on Friday nights, we couldn't see much. The lights were so damn bright.