Some football movies aren't much at all about football, but the movie-version of Friday Night Lights scored big points all the way around, with captivating performances, quality football action scenes and a screenplay that never let you forget the importance placed on winning games in Odessa, Texas.
As one who hadn't read H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights or heard the story based on the 1988 season of the Permian High Panthers and head coach Gary Gaines' (played by Billy Bob Thornton), I went into the theater with no preconceptions about the film based on this true story.
If the story wasn't true it would be hard to believe that 20,000 fans filled the stands every Friday night to live and die with the Permian Panthers, and that the pressure to win there is so intense (even for a sportswriter in even one of the most football-obsessed parts of the world, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.)
Billy Bob Thornton stars as Coach Gaines. Thornton excels in scenes where Odessa local boosters impress the importance of winning a state championship, littering the coach's lawn with "for sale" real estate signs after an early-season loss. Thornton also passes the test on the field and in the locker room with the consistent coaches' lexicon, insisting that his players be "perfect".
Thornton is the movie's star, but the best performance of the movie, for my money, was turned in by Derek Luke as Permian High star running back "Boobie" Miles. Permian built its team around Miles, a physical specimen being courted by the top college football programs in the country.
Miles and his uncle L.V. Miles (played by Grover Coulson) who raised him had visions of a lifetime playing the sport, but an injury suffered in the late stages of a blowout Permian win endangers Miles' season and his future.
Luke's scenes are brilliantly played and are the most memorable in the film. Miles' pestering dialogue on the sidelines when he's trying to convince the coach to let him play on the injured leg is dead-on. "Put Boobie in to win, Coach… Wanna win, put Boobie in… Let Boobie spin," he repeats over and over again as his team falls further behind in the game. A scene with his uncle at a Midland doctor's office is also heart-wrenching.
The relationship of Don and Charles Billingsley also plays out nicely. Tim McGraw plays Charles, who was a state champion at Permian and now is the father of Don, the team's fumble-prone running back (played by Garrett Hedlund). As Charles Billingsly, McGraw is the picture of a once-great athlete trying to live vicariously through his son, charging onto the practice field to deride him in an early scene. The car ride home after one Permian loss turns into another of the movie's several memorable scenes.
Less-developed but well-played is the story of quarterback Mike Winchell (played by Danville, Alabama native Lucas Black), who's looney mother (played by Connie Cooper) will take any offer of a scholarship from any school, despite the fact that her son isn't sure about his future as a football player, or outside of Odessa.
The tie that binds each of these relationships and each of the characters is the importance to their lives of winning football games, which was true for everyone in Odessa. At the conclusion of the season, when one of the Permian seniors says "I'm going to miss the lights," he spoke for all of the town.
Friday Night Lights can't miss with anyone who's ever wanted more sports in their sports movies, but even without the fierce football scenes, it's a worthy and compelling drama.