Friday Night Lights

On Friday nights during football season, the world shuts down in Texas as thousands of people crowd stadiums to watch high school football. H.G. Bissinger immortalized the experience in his book Friday Night Lights, which directors have been trying to adapt for years. The book tracks the progress of the 1998 Permian Panthers for Odessa, Texas, and was such a powerful story because Bissinger took a step back from football and wrote about the town and its inhabitants. There is not much to do in Odessa. Many people wanted to leave upon graduation, and for many of these boys, football was their only ticket out of town. The film adaptation mines nearly every sports and football cliché imaginable, yet succeeds because the underlying story is so powerful.

Director Peter Berg (The Rundown, Very Bad Things), a first cousin of Bissinger's, toned down some of Bissinger's more controversial elements in the book, particularly about how football was so favored over education. Berg still sneaks some of this in, but the result is that it blunts the story from becoming even rawer and more emotional. The football scenes start decently, but by the end of the film, Berg and crew do a great job of filming the pounding that these kids give and take. But what really makes Friday Night Lights works is the casting, which is good all around. The anchor is Billy Bob Thornton (The Alamo, Bad Santa), who plays Coach Gary Gaines. He must submit to armchair coaching from the entire town that worsens if he loses. Everybody is expecting him to win state. If not, he will almost certainly lose his job.

The star running back is Boobie Miles (Derek Luke, Spartan, Biker Boyz), an arrogant but phenomenal athlete with bright hopes for the future. He fully acknowledges that he will go to college based on his football skills and not on his academics. Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund, Troy) is living under the shadow of his alcoholic father (Tim McGraw) who also played for the Panthers. Quarterback Mike Winchell's (Lucas Black, Cold Mountain, All the Pretty Horses) mother is sick, but still drills him through all of his plays morning and night. Berg, who adapted the book with David Aaron Cohen (Quantum Project, The Devil's Own) focuses on how the personal lives of these boys affects their play, and on the hopes and aspirations that each one is trying to achieve through football.

It is a nice mix of personalities, with Luke and Black standing out amongst a cast of mostly newcomers. Again, there is nothing inherently new or different about Friday Night Lights. Berg succeeds because he takes what everybody else did in their movies, and does it well. He knows how to get an audience to respond to emotion, and keeps a good balance between the sports and the players' lives. There is enough human drama to keep non-sports fans interested, and enough bone-crunching tackles to keep sports fans interested.

Haro Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 57 minutes, Rated PG-13 for thematic issues, sexual content, language, some teen drinking and some rough sports action.

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