Friday Night Lights, an against-the-odds drama about the 1988 Odessa-Permian high school football team that reached the Texas state championship game, has advertised itself as (according to Sports Illustrated) “one of the greatest sports stories of all time.” While that may be true of Buzz Bissinger’s acclaimed non-fiction book “Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream”—which vividly recounts Odessa’s unhealthy, unrelenting obsession with high school pigskin—director Peter Berg’s adaptation is the cinematic equivalent of a recovered fumble: not disastrous, but also not terribly good. An underdog tale in which a gutsy squad led by a dedicated coach (Billy Bob Thornton’s Gary Gaines) overcomes injuries, arrogance, abusive parents, and suffocating expectations to triumph (however modestly) in the end, the film is an unexceptional depiction of seizing the moment and coping with the onerous pressure of being a star jock in a town that irrationally defines itself via athletics.
Shots of abandoned businesses on Friday nights, housewives feverishly talking strategy, and the sound of rabid sports radio callers referring to the team as “we” convey the football fanaticism that grips some rural Southern communities, and Berg’s competent game direction captures the crunching thunder of helmets and pads colliding. Unfortunately, Berg and David Aaron Cohen’s script (regardless of the fact that it’s based on actual events) lacks any sense of dramatic urgency or thrust, a glaring deficiency compounded by the director’s inability to create in-game drama. By fracturing his presentation of the contests with incessant cutaways to the stands and the sideline—as well as by failing to keep us regularly apprised of key facts like what the score is, what quarter we’re watching, or what down it might be—one finds it nearly impossible to become invested in the team’s moment-to-moment struggles against their bigger, faster, ruthless opponents.
It doesn’t help that the film’s tackling titans—an earnest quarterback (Lucas Black) with questionable desire; an illiterate superstar running back (a charismatic Derek Luke) who must learn to cope with a career-ending knee injury; a backup runner (Garrett Hedlund) whose fumbling problems are an embarrassment to his former football hero father (country singer Tim McGraw, holding his own in his acting debut)—have been rudimentarily conceived, and that their stories are little more than filler surrounding Berg’s gritty, in-your-face presentation of clashing gridiron goliaths. Thornton’s cagey Gaines radiates rah-rah passion on the sideline and simmering exasperation at the townspeople’s burdensome demands for a winner, yet watching him vainly attempt to instill less-than-rousing halftime speeches with inspirational intensity, one can also sense the actor’s frustration at having to shoulder the burden of carrying this pedestrian sports saga to the goal line.