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Game Film, No. 5: Friday Night Lights

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Breaking down the X’s and O’s of the top 10 football movies of all time. At number five: A film that’s somewhat overlooked because it’s a middle child — stuck between a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and a beloved TV show.

Consider the legacy of Friday Night Lights for a moment. Author Buzz Bissinger initially told the true story of a high school team expected to compete for a Texas state title. His book, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, won a Pulitzer Prize, and inspired a short-lived TV show (starring a young Ben Affleck!) before being adapted into this film, which in turn inspired a beloved TV series — which might just turn around and inspire another movie (but not one based directly on the show, because Kyle Chandler has other ideas).

Bissinger’s cousin happens to be Peter Berg, who wrote and directed the film adaptation, as well as created the TV show. Nepotism or no, Berg came up with a uniquely-styled take — community drama/sports movie hybrid using handheld camera work and atmospheric music to give a heightened sense of intimacy— which took the Friday Night Lights to another level.

It’s easy to forget how unique the style of this film was at the time. It has been imitated — even by itself, in an ouroboros kind of way — but still resonates all these years later. Because of that style, and because it’s a true story, it feels like a documentary at times. It doesn’t hurt that the story of the 1988 Permian Panthers is enough drama for any fictional sports movie, leaving little need for the usual truth-stretching sports movies based on actual events usually engage in.

Let’s break it all down. But first, the trailer:

Or maybe you’d prefer this much more effective and accurate trailer, put together by a devoted fan (the sure sign of a beloved film):

MVP

Billy Bob Thornton crushes his role as coach Gary Gaines, and Derek Luke still steals the movie. It’s like Daunte Culpepper throwing for 39 TD’s and 11 INT’s and leading the league in passing yards the year this movie came out, but not even getting consideration for the MVP because Peyton Manning threw 49 TD’s and 10 INT’s and led the league in just about everything else the same season.

Luke’s Boobie Miles is arrogant but charismatic, loud-mouthed, but likable. His introduction as a funny, larger-than-life character makes his sudden, crushing fall even more of a gut punch than it would’ve been otherwise. Luke sells you on his character early and in convincing fashion, and that’s necessary for the movie to work.

An all-state RB on his way to whatever college he wanted, Boobie loses everything very quickly, and it’s heartbreaking. That all happened, and I’m sure it was all on the page in this screenplay, but I doubt it would be as satisfying without Luke’s performance. He’s a revelation. It’s impossible to watch this film and not think, “How did he not become a star?”

Luke is excellent at the beginning of the film as comedic relief -- so animated and funny you don’t mind his arrogance and braggadocio. He’s even better later on in the scenes when Boobie’s world crashes around him. It’s so hard for him to accept, he can’t even believe it straight from the mouth of a prominent doctor up in Midland.

But the piece de resistance is the scene when Boobie cleans out his locker, putting on a brave face for his teammates, then breaking down with his uncle. Luke just crushes it.

If that doesn’t break your heart, you don’t have one.

Key role players

Billy Bob is overqualified for this category — like Tom Cruise, Sean Astin, and Al Pacino before him. For the fourth film in a row on this list, the nominal star of the movie is stuck slumming it down through no fault of his own, but because a supporting character out-shone him.

Thornton is fantastic as coach Gary Gaines, a tough but fair man, who carries the weight of an entire town on his job performance. Despite the pressure, Gaines never loses his composure, and he makes sure his team doesn’t either. Thornton helps this along by imbuing Gaines with quiet dignity and confidence. Right from the beginning, he tells the team they will win the state championship -- the only real question is whether they can do it undefeated. Then suddenly, he loses his best player and has to draw the very best out of his team to get them to the state title game.

Thornton’s state championship halftime speech has been listed as one of the best on film. Sometimes, right at the top. It has been analyzed rhetorically. It has been used as motivation by the very best in the game. And why not? Tell me you wouldn’t run through a brick wall for this man.

Thornton gets help from the rest of the cast without much screen time. Some notables:

  • Lucas Black as QB Mike Winchell is steady and grounded. Black being the kid from Sling Blade now being coached by Ol’ Sling Blade himself is a little distracting, but not enough to tarnish his performance as a regular guy who was never going to be a pro, or even a college star, but was a bonafide sports hero in high school — minus the ego which often accompanies that.
  • Jay Hernandez is great as the smart kid on the team, S/TE Brian Flores. Flores went to Harvard, then came back home to be a lawyer in Odessa, so Hernandez has to play him as a small-town kid smart enough for the Ivy League, but humble enough for a return to home afterward. Hernandez’s understated performance hits that sweet spot.
  • The only two returning actors to the TV show adaptation from the film are Connie Britton as the coach’s wife, and Brad Leland as an over-involved fan/booster. They aren’t seen as much here as in the show, but they make the most of their time on screen.
  • Wait, that’s a lie — there’s one other returning performer: The music! The soundtrack by Explosions In The Sky, plays such a large supporting role in the film, it simply had to have a spot in this section. It sets the tone for the film (and the show) so solidly, it’s hard to imagine one without the other.

The opponent

Life. The families in this story confront harsh realities, and so does the Panther football team. They face obstacles we’re all familiar with — injury, weakness, disappointment, pressure. At the top of this list is expectation. That’s what makes this story so resonant with the American public that it has found popularity in three media formats and counting. Because we relate, and therefore, we empathize. More than any other film on this list, Friday Night Lights is about football as salvation in America — the game giving hope and opportunity to many who can’t find that anywhere else.

Rookies of the year

The father-son duo of Tim McGraw and Garrett Hedland as Charles and Don Billingsley take this one in a tie. It was only Hedlund’s second credit and McGraw’s third --but one was the Jeff Foxworthy Show, and that shouldn’t count. Both are very good in this, despite the fact their storyline gets a little melodramatic at times. It was also the last time McGraw’s head was seen without either a cowboy hat or toupee (or newsboy cap) on it.

Key moment

Since Boobie Miles is such a dominant player and forceful personality, the turning point in this movie occurs when he suffers a catastrophic knee injury.

An ill-advised attempted comeback follows, but Boobie’s gone, taking Permian’s best shot at a state championship with him. From that moment on, the Panthers go from being a comfortable favorite to being a scrappy underdog.

The highlights

  • Three teams tie for the last two playoff spots, so how is the tie-breaker determined. Why, by a coin toss of course. In a local restaurant. On live TV. It’s so awkward, it had to have really happened (at 2am!), and the proof is on YouTube:
  • The playoff montage is fantastic, complete with a bracket graphic, showing all the other matchups, and how the teams advance — with highlights from the games included!
  • The entrances of the teams in the Astrodome before the Texas state championship game. It’s quite the sequence, ending with the Dallas Carter team barking at Permian.
  • The ending of the state championship game. As disappointing as the final result, it’s very well done.

The lowlights

  • Remember how I said the Garrett Hedland/Tim Graw storyline was laid on a little thick? Exhibit A would be the duct tape scene.
  • The clock management down the stretch. Way too much happens in the final two minutes of the game. Carter has a first down in Permian territory with two minutes to go, run it four times, staying in bounds each time, while only running 20 seconds off the clock. That might be possible had Permian called all three timeouts, but they’re shown using (at least) one on their final drive, which also seems to have a lot going on for only 1:40 of clock time.

Football scenes

The play is believable, and visceral thanks to Berg’s directorial style. And the situations are all realistic, which is something the TV show version struggled with from time to time. The actors all look like athletes and are all solid enough on the field to sell it.

And the drama is heightened well with game action. Booby’s injury and excruciating comeback. Booby’s backup RB’s picking up the slack. Don Billingsley’s improvement holding on the ball. And finally Winchell’s gutsy run to fall just short. Whether they actually happened the way they’re portrayed on screen in one thing, but they are at least portrayed well.

NFL cameos

NFL WR and Permian alum Roy Williams plays an assistant coach for Midland Lee, Permian’s arch-rival. Hall of Fame CB Ty Law plays a WR for Dallas Carter, the team the Panthers play in the state championship, catching a one-handed touchdown pass. During the playoff montage, CB Aqib Talib is seen in actual highlights from one of his high school games.

Realism

As well-done as this movie is, the best thing about it may be that you know it’s based on real people and a true story. You can feel the harsh truths of the realities these kids faced, and the reality behind it plays a large part in that.

That being said, the movie takes some serious liberties with the facts of the story. Most “based on a true story” movies do, but when more than half of the movie’s wikipedia page is devoted to the “Differences between the movie and events” section, it’s a little disconcerting.

The wild state championship game shoot-out against Dallas Carter played in front of a massive crowd at the Astrodome and ending on a Winchell run to goal-line which falls inches short of giving Permian a state championship? Well, none of that happened. What actually happened:

  • Permian played Carter in the semi-finals, not the finals.
  • The game was played before 10,000 fans at University of Texas’ Memorial Stadium in Austin under a heavy downpour, not in front of 45,000 fans under a dome.
  • The game was a defensive battle, won 14-9 on a Carter comeback, not 34-28 after a Permian comeback.
  • It ended on an incomplete Winchell pass, not a run to the goal-line.

Best line

Booby Miles: “Can an MRI fix your knee?”

Heartbreaking. Truly one of the affecting moments I’ve ever seen in a sports movie.

Up next

The O.G. The oldest movie on the list. Hint: In my experience, it’s the movie men have the easiest time admitting to having cried during.

Honorable/dishonorable mentions
No. 10: The Replacements
No. 9: All The Right Moves
No. 8: Any Given Sunday
No. 7: Rudy
No. 6: Jerry Maguire