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More than just a game


Among the many plangent platitudes that permeate the vocabulary of the game, one ancient adage maintains that football builds character; an alternate suggests that in fact it reveals character. The sentimental sports movies, i.e., the majority, depend upon the first statement, while the better ones naturally concentrate on the second, employing their subject as a means to examine particular people, relationships, and the meanings of the game they play.

Friday Night Lights, based on a highly regarded book documenting the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas, shows something of the significance of the sport in the context of small towns and thwarted lives.

The picture establishes the visual context of its action with the camera moving over the bleak brown spaces of West Texas, pausing for an overhead view of a magnificent football stadium, glowing in Astroturf green, while the soundtrack carries the voices of callers on a radio sports show. They discuss the town's overwhelming concern, the upcoming season and Odessa-Permian High School's chances to win a state championship.

They think it appropriate that tax money be spent on the stadium rather than the school and that the coach earns a larger salary than the principal. Football so obsesses the town (and countless others throughout the West, the Midwest, and the South) that the citizens consider the team and its players something like their own property, extensions of themselves, a source of identity and pride, a heavy burden for the young men of Odessa.

Just about all the townspeople participate vicariously in the rhythms of the season, and they all of course know exactly how to construct and coach a successful football team. They call the radio show with helpful hints about strategy and the proper use of personnel, and a committee of boosters visits the coach with advice about how to play defense. When the Panthers win, they lavishly praise the coach and his players. When the team loses, they decorate his front lawn with for-sale signs and call for his head.

The coach and some of the players comprehend a measure of the sad desperation behind the people's attitudes toward the game. The athletes not only bring some secondhand glory to the citizens, they provide an escape from the prison of their lives, a glimpse of something beyond the drab reality of Odessa, Texas, where only the relentless oil pumps interrupt the endless flatness stretching toward a distant horizon. Some of the players, hoping for college scholarships, understand that football just might provide a road out of the dreary place, a different life from the one they know.

The film concentrates on a few members of the team, especially the star running back, Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) and the quarterback, Mike Winchell (Lucas Black). It's a study in contrasts, since one is a superbly gifted athlete overflowing with confidence and egoism, and the other is an introverted, unhappy young man who never really enjoys the game.

Before a serious injury ruins Boobie's season, a number of major college football powers court him. Mike, on the other hand, only receives an expression of mild interest from that great center of learning and football, Kansas Wesleyan, which still may offer some way out of Odessa.

Despite all the time spent on the players and the games, the film really concentrates on the adults, in particular one player's father (Tim McGraw) and the coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton). An obstreperous drunk who publicly embarrasses his son on the practice field, and a typical washed-up high school athlete, McGraw sports a championship ring from his days at Permian, clearly the last and only great moment of his life, when he attained what Fitzgerald calls "an acute limited excellence."

More sensitive and thoughtful than any high school coach I have ever had the misfortune to meet, Gaines, on the other hand, realizes the essential meaninglessness of the whole endeavor, telling his quarterback that there is very little difference between winning and losing, but that it means more to the folks who watch the games than the players.

Whatever its ostensible subject and its numerous moments of furious play, Friday Night Lights merely uses football as medium and metaphor, a way of confronting the paradoxical constriction of empty space and attenuated hope. It lacks the ersatz uplift of the average sports movie, its halftime speeches sound false and hollow, its victories fall short of the usual cinema triumphs.

The picture not only recalls those sports flicks that transcend their subject, like Chariots of Fire and Raging Bull, but actually derives from quite different sources, studies in drab provincialism like Winesburg, Ohio and another movie about a defeated small town in Texas, The Last Picture Show.

Friday Night Lights (PG-13), starring Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Derek Luke, Tim McGraw; based on the book by H.G. Bissinger; screenplay by David Aaron Cohen; directed by Peter Berg. Cinemark Tinseltown; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Greece Ridge; Regal Henrietta.