Peter Berg, 2005, US, 117 mins
Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Derek Luke
Sport isn't about the winning it's about the taking part, so say the losers anyway. The fans however are there for one thing - to win and win big, and it's this insurmountable pressure piled on the athletes that Friday Night Lights carefully brings to boiling point. Except in this case the players aren't £50,000 a week superstars like the Beckhams or Wilkinsons of the world but high school kids, 17-year-old American football wannabes who are juggling impossible expectation with academic education, getting accepted to college, girls and other trials and tribulations normal youngsters suffer.
The film follows the Permian Panthers out of the small town Odessa which rests on the shimmering plains of Texas . They've won the state championship once before and hopes are high that they'll do it again in 1988, aiming to see off the giants of indestructible Dallas. Director Peter Berg, sometime actor of The Last Seduction and Collateral , adapts his cousin Buzz Hissinger's book into something of a sports hybrid. The clichés seem to be there but Berg manages to score a fresh angle on the usual sweat and tears formula by a studied documentary approach that involves everyday life off the pitch as well as on it.
Coach Gary Gaines is the first anomaly, played with quiet dignity by a straight talking Thornton who makes the rallying, heartfelt, sometimes cringing dialogue feel real. He can get in someone's face if he has to but deep down he knows his boys are doing their best. It's not the end of the world if they fail but the moneymen in the town make sure they keep the sword of Damocles squarely over his neck. With bemusement he watches the ridiculous aspects of the game shatter his best laid plans, the coin toss decision broadcast to thousands from an undisclosed location and the power struggle on deciding suitable venues with racially acceptable referees. He just wants to play football, they want the earth and while Thornton does his best it's down to the team performing on the night, hoping lady luck is smiling.
The players are quickly demoralised when cocksure star player Boobie Miles (Luke) is injured after the first game. His dream career painfully over, it's left to mild-mannered Winchell (Black) to step up, with his overbearing Mum nudging him into the limelight. Meanwhile Billingsley (Hedlund) is forever living in his father's shadow, played with edgy violence by Country & Western singer Tim McGraw; you never know how far he's going to push his kid to 'hold the ball'. With everyone else in the town constantly asking "Gonna win State this year?" it's a wonder they don't join the chess club but they rise to the challenge. These games aren't small; the whole town packs up to see capacity games and those that don't watch it broadcast across the networks. Think playing Sixth Form footy at Upton Park and you get an idea of the scale the guys live with for an entire season.
Inevitably, outside the US a movie which focuses on what they call football is usually frowned on, but while Berg never lays out the rules in plain English it's always perceived from a spectators view and you're right there with them. Occasionally he can't resist a foot tapping rock song to accompany the crunching tackles but throughout he includes tracks from the experimental Texan band Explosions in the Sky . Their often thoughtful, sweeping instrumentals lend a serious air to what could be another Varsity Blues teen fest and again another example of how Friday Night Lights breaks convention to combine a simple sports movie with the intelligence of a Michael Mann thriller.
As with most films of the genre, the constant rule seems to be there's always a spare few seconds to win but it's never made certain what's going to happen. There are a few dalliances from real life events in the name of thrilling conclusion but what it comes down to is a realistic portrayal of the sport itself inter-cut with footage of the actual Permians in action. For the viewer we're concerned with the big win but for the guys on the pitch it's about survival and making the most of their fifteen minutes because while they haven't even begun life this may be the only chance to make something of it, or so the crowds chant.