- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

In Odessa, Texas, high school football isn’t a part of life. It’s life itself. Journalist H.G. Bissinger captured that reality in his best-selling “Friday Night Lights,” and director Peter Berg (Mr. Bissinger’s cousin) does that book justice in the slick new drama of the same name.

Take away the film’s underdog trappings, and we still have a measured swipe against small-town Americana.

Sports, after all, should build character, not resentment. The stakes being played out here make football seem more poison than pleasure.

“Friday Night Lights” casts Billy Bob Thornton in the toughest job in the world, the high school football coach in a town teeming with second-guessers. Maybe that’s because every other man over 40 has a fat state-championship ring on his finger from the town’s glory days.

Coach Gaines isn’t sweating the approaching 1988 Panthers season despite near-universal pressure. He’s got superstar-in-training Boobie Miles (Derek Luke of “Antwone Fisher”) on his squad, a can’t-miss prospect with an ego to match his running game.

All Boobie needs is the forthcoming Nike contract.

Yet this is football, and the injury bug bites Boobie hard. The Panthers’ can’t-miss offense suddenly loses its biggest weapon, leaving coach and teammates reeling.

Even without their star player, the Panthers barrel forward, inspired by a town where missing the playoffs is tantamount to social suicide.

However, Mike, the star quarterback (Lucas Black, last seen with Mr. Thornton in 1996’s “Sling Blade”) has other things on his mind. He can’t overcome his grief over his mother’s deteriorating mental state, depicted here in tiny, indelicate scenes. And butter-fingered receiver Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund of “Troy”) catches hellfire from his father (country music superstar Tim McGraw) for failing to live up to the family football name.

We also watch as Boobie seeks out medical specialists, hoping to hear the one diagnosis that will let him return to the playing field.

“Friday Night Lights” casts its affections at the players without ignoring the negative forces swirling along the sidelines. These athletes grow up in a hurry with little margin for error. The script, co-written by Mr. Berg (who is also an actor, last seen in “Collateral” earlier this year), aptly fleshes out the team’s “can’t win” scenario without succumbing to hero worship.

Some of Coach Gaines’ wisdom includes hollering “Wake up and play football” once too often to his young charges, but we watch him grow just enough for a humanistic halftime speech in the championship game. Still, his bond with his players never materializes as it should, despite a sterling performance by Mr. Thornton.

Mr. Berg’s camera style favors a jittery look that’s more akin to documentary than sports spectacle. But the approach, nonetheless, gives us an inside-the-locker-room intimacy. Better still, he knows how to frame the authentic football sequences, a thrill that papers over the sports fourth-and-11 histrionics.

“Friday Night Lights” flirts with larger issues, too — from class structure to racism, the latter played during the final reel with too little grit.

In the end, the film stands taller by detailing how a town can intertwine itself with a sports program while ignoring the athletes who make the crowds cheer. The average sports fan will thrill to “Friday Night Lights,” yet will also leave ambivalent about the games behind the game.

***

TITLE: “Friday Night Lights”

RATING: PG-13 (Coarse language, alcohol use and sports-style intensity)

CREDITS: Directed by Peter Berg. Written by David Aaron Cohen and Mr. Berg, based on the book by H.G. Bissinger.

RUNNING TIME:110 minutes

WEB SITE: www.fridaynightlightsmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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