Friday Night Lights captures the small-town feeling that life begins and ends on the gridiron, even if it doesn’t quite get the game right.
Odessa is a small town in Texas with a big football fixation. As Friday Night Lights opens, we travel through this ramshackle community and meet its stars: the high school level Odessa-Permian Panthers football team. The townspeoples’ lives revolve around their Friday night football games. Stores shut down when the lights go on, and they aren’t shy about applying the pressure to their hometown heroes.
Al Pacino’s halftime pep talk in Any Given Sunday has never been more appropriate than in Odessa, Texas. His adrenaline-charged, center spotlight speech on this game of inches is so fitting that spliced flashbacks to Pacino’s Tony D’Amato would have been a welcome addition to the culmination of Friday Night Lights.
Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) has the thankless role of leading this team, where anything less than perfection is regarded as a failure. By skipping training camp and leaving Gaines as a character no more or less important than anyone on the team, director Peter Berg has hit on the best quality Thornton has to offer as a coach: his subtlety. Thornton depicts Gaines unlike any other coach immortalized on the silver screen, as an understated man in a job that requires him to lead. He barks orders only when necessary, instead choosing to talk to and relate to his players to make himself an effective coach.
The team consists of and focuses around Boobie Miles (played by an electric Derek Luke). Miles is their star running back, and he’s a superstar on field and screen. He’s also the best part of this picture. Every scene Luke is in transcends to a higher level than the rest of the film.
When an injury debilitates Miles and dashes his hopes of carrying his team to the state championship, it’s up to the other players to pick up the ball. Quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), second-string running back Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young) and linebacker Ivory Christian (Lee Jackson) standout, making each one into more than just a sports cliché.
Winchell is desperate to impress talent scouts that could get him out of Odessa, while also trying to please his mother. Comer is thrust into the starting spot as a result of one of his own blunders and has to deal with the highs and lows this town has to offer. Christian becomes the silent leader of this team, whose explosion into a fiery, passionate dialogue was more effective than any pep talk.
By far, the biggest surprise comes courtesy of country singer Tim “Don’t Take the Girl” McGraw, who plays the fanatical father of fumble-prone Don Billingsley. When his son coughs one up during practice, he marches down on the field to berate him in front of everyone. His outbursts are shocking, hard to watch and most of all, important demonstrations of just how important these games are to the town.
The film gets so many little things right that it’s a shame it doesn’t know the game of football very well. Director Peter Berg catches the feeling of this intimate little town in a gritty handheld camera, but can’t piece together a football drive to save his life. There’s no sequential order, no rhyme or reason to the configuration of these games. An interception will be followed by a touchdown from the same team that was just picked off, so it seems more like a highlight reel recap than a live game. There isn’t one legitimate football drive in the whole movie and when Miles goes down, the team never really recovers. You’re never made to feel this team is capable of what they have to do.
But during the final game, none of that matters because you feel yourself rooting for this makeshift squad of scrappers. Mostly because you know Pacino’s speech has never rung more true:
“On this team we fight for that inch…because we know when we add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!”
Brian Mulligan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.