Friday Night Lights, a stringent, stirring real-life drama about a stale West Texas town whose population sucks the breath of life from the success of its high school football team, is based on a work of sports journalism that many who love books about sports think is one of the greatest stories ever told. Heck, even those who don’t love books about sports think H.G. Bissinger’s 1990 nonfiction account of the same name is one of the greatest stories ever told. Because football itself is almost beside the point in his acute, nuanced report — a psychological thriller, really — about national issues of American hope, pride, pressure, and sense of proportion. The games won and lost by the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas’ Permian High School during the 1988 season, in their quest to capture the fifth Texas state championship in their 30-year history, are not, in the end, important. What simultaneously chills and warms are the sharp winds of racial and class conflict, desperation and community resolve, dead-endedness and opportunity that Bissinger sniffs in the dry Texas air and describes so vividly in the course of his yearlong chronicle.
The movie adaptation, directed with smart, documentary-style briskness by Peter Berg (The Rundown) from a limber screenplay by Berg and David Aaron Cohen (The Devil’s Own), inevitably cedes some subtlety of sociology and reporterly description in favor of fast-cut sports action: Stuff has got to move on screen, motion-picture style, while stuff can more easily just be in the pages of a book. Plus, there’s always got to be a coda, apparently, trumpeted like a sappy school anthem. (Not in my playbook, mind, but clearly in that of the Hollywood-gridiron system.) Still, Friday Night Lights, the movie, retains the integrity of Bissinger’s book. And the greatest measure of its honesty may be that even when Billy Bob Thornton, playing Coach Gary Gaines, gives his players the film’s highpoint sermon during the team’s crucial last halftime — ”I want you to put each other in your hearts forever, because forever is about to happen,” he preaches — the coach himself doesn’t dominate the game. Looking into the battered faces of his young men in the locker room or going eyeball-to-eyeball with the town bigwigs who demand a state championship with all the gentleness of a death threat, Thornton, giving a splendid, disciplined performance, seamlessly shapes his coach into a believable man of quality rather than star-size charisma.
No one player dominates the game on Berg’s playing field, not even star running back James ”Boobie” Miles, personified in a blaze of brio by Antwone Fisher’s Derek Luke. And although some games are naturally more important than others, as the mostly white Panthers scramble their way toward a do-or-die showdown with the massively built, mostly black steamrollers of the Dallas Carter Cowboys, no single matchup lingers in the air as the ”point” of it all. There are no miracles on the field here; the chant ”USA! USA!” is superfluous. (The Panthers are boosted along by chants of ”Mo-Jo! Mo-Jo!”) This is Heartland, USA, or a reasonable facsimile of it, freed from thundering horn music to muck it up.
Instead, the season goes the way the season goes — ain’t nothin’ hip hip hooray thrown in to tamper with reality. The running back is injured. The quarterback (a perfectly intense Lucas Black, first memorably teamed with Thornton eight years ago in Sling Blade) feels trapped in Odessa by the very air molecules around him. The tailback (Garrett Hedlund) fights his wreck of a father (Grammy winner Tim McGraw, potent in his first Hollywood role), a bully for whom winning a state championship was both the high point and end of his own blighted dreams. And at every step, Berg (by happenstance, he’s Bissinger’s second cousin) and his prowling DP, commercial cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, rely on rough, handheld shots of flat landscape, industrial nothingness, and the exertions of spangled cheerleaders to convey as much about wins and losses as any human-interest subplots.
It’s a happy/sad circumstance that Berg took on the movie — an adaptation long in the works — after the 1998 death of the project’s original helmer, Alan J. Pakula. Fortunately, the ball has been passed to a player who understands that Friday Night Lights is about how life is a game and a game can be life.