Film Reviews

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

By • Oct 8th, 2004 •

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Universal and Imagine Entertainment present a Brian Grazer production
MPAA rating: PG-13 / Running time — 117 minutes

QUOTE: For high school football fanatics, this is a touchdown.

I hate these movies, based on true events, about heroic sports teams that come from behind to win. There’s one every year. The story never changes: Small rural town is obsessed with their sports team run by a tough, but understanding, coach. The kids have problems.

I feel sorry for the studio intern who has to dig around old newspapers to find these “true” stories.

This one, however, is well known in sports circles. It’s 1988 and a Texas high school football team, the Permian High Panthers, is preparing for their run for the state championship. The entire town courts the players and gives advice to the coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton). Everybody wants to know if the players had a good bowel movement that morning. Housewives read the playbook. If you don’t live in a small town in the Midwest, can you understand the veiled threats Gaines gets from the town’s fleshy businessmen? My God! Don’t these people have any other interests in their lives?

Winning the state championship means these young men can get out from under the misery of Odessa and get into a good college. The team’s leader and star is Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) who basks in his hometown glory. He’s cocky, arrogant, and can’t read or write. Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) has a mean, violent drunk of a father, Charles (Tim McGraw), who has a state championship ring and is a local legend. He brutally attacks his son for not holding on to the ball in a practice game. Hey, I kept wondering: Winning a state championship did nothing for you pal but turn you into a mean drunk. Why do you think a ring will change your son’s future? (His portrayal is eerily reminiscent of the Boyfriend in Thornton’s SLING BLADE. Is this why Thornton was attracted to the script?) Then there’s Mike Winchell (Lukas Black – a SLINGBLADE alumni) who has a weird mother (Connie Cooper). She might be crazy but she knows her football!

Directed by Peter Berg, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS has two things going for it: The look is gritty and down-and-dirty and there is a surprise ending to the Permian High Panther’s quest for the championship. I didn’t see this one coming. Berg has a tough angle on the material and allows his actors to suggest rather than announce their motives. Berg does not sanitize or pretty up his canvas. There is not one attractive shot in this movie. I liked Berg’s strong hand in framing the material and giving the entire production a coarse realism. So, for even a non-fan like myself, I can appreciate Berg’s vision of rural high school football.


Editor’s Note:

At the NBR screening, Billy Bob, to whom we’ve given two Awards, fielded questions about the film. He felt that the hand-held camerawork (80% of which ended up on screen) and the quick cutting were both stylistically appropriate for the narrative, since a coach has to make split second decisions, and Berg’s technical choices were evocative of that mindset.

FIR's editor and Billy Bob Thornton

I complimented him on his performance as David Crockett in THE ALAMO. Even though there isn’t a lot to base a characterization on historically, I felt that he’d come the closest to nailing it out of all the attempts on film – including John Wayne, Fess Parker, James Arness, and a delightfully back-woodsie Arthur Hunnicut. Thornton was genuinely complimented, but added that because his co-stars weren’t well reviewed, he finds it difficult to fully enjoy praise about that particular role.


Cast:
Coach Gaines: Billy Bob Thornton
Mike: Lucas Black
Don: Garrett Hedlund
Boobie: Derek Luke
Brian: Jay Hernandez
Ivory: Lee Jackson
Chris: Lee Thompson Young
Charles Billingsley: Tim McGraw
L.V. Miles: Grover Coulson

Credits:
Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriters: David Aaron Cohen, Peter Berg
Based on the book by: H.G. Bissinger
Producer: Brian Grazer
Executive producers: James Whitaker, John Cameron
Director of photography: Tobias Schliessler
Production designer: Sharon Seymour
Music: Explosions in the Sky
Co-producers: Robert Graf, Sarah Aubrey
Costumes: Susan Matheson
Editors: David Rosenbloom, Colby Parker Jr.

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