The nation's capital has always been crazy about its Redskins, but the year Vince Lombardi was head coach saw such deafening pandemonium that urbane TV commentator Heywood Hale Broun was impressed enough to remark, "To the eternal question, 'Who am I?,' 'I am a Redskins fan' provides a convenient answer."
As it was in Washington, D.C., so it was in Odessa, Texas, circa 1988, but, as detailed in H.G. Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights," even more so.
That book, and the new Peter Berg-directed film based on it, takes us through a season of Odessa's Permian High School Panthers, a.k.a. "the winningest high school football team in Texas history." And it introduces us to pigskin-obsessed West Texas, where upward of 20,000 spectators show up for Friday-night clashes and a coach can expect multiple "For Sale" signs to show up on his lawn if his team dares lose a game or two as it contends for the state championship.
The result of a year spent with his family living and researching in Odessa, Bissinger's effort continues to be a phenomenon 14 years after its publication. Named the top football book of all time by Sports Illustrated, it's now in its 40th printing, with more than 700,000 copies sold.
Bissinger's work succeeded because it casually combines the glory and the reality, tapping into the romance of youthful gridiron combat as well as providing a clear-eyed sociological backdrop to the football story. It included the kind of details about the town's racial relationships and educational priorities that caused the author to cancel his book signings in Odessa because of death threats.
Director Berg, who turns out to be a Bissinger cousin, has set himself somewhat of a different mandate and will likely not have dire warnings to contend with. His main thrust is not toward specific reality but toward glorifying the game and its players.
Berg and co-writer David Aaron Cohen have stuck to authenticity in the film's broad strokes, emphasizing genuine local color as well as the terrible pressures both players and coaches have to deal with, and that is all to the good.
But when it comes to crucial details about both the games and the people who play them, no one has hesitated to throw authenticity to the wind in the name of what's called "dramatic purposes." When specific facts get in the way of drama, the film, like the editor in John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," has printed the legend, opting for the kind of high-powered mythologizing the movies are always more comfortable with.
But, that said, sports is a field that takes easily to being mythologized. We watch games because they represent life reduced to elemental terms, with crises clearly delineated and good and evil spelled out in ways that can't be confused. So the film's willingness to energetically hype reality in a way the book does not can actually be enjoyable if you're in the mood for a rousing sports saga that pulls us along despite our qualms. Always slick and pumped up, "Friday Night Lights" is real enough around the edges to hold our attention even if it sacrifices accuracy for storytelling ease.
One of those edges is "Friday Night Lights' " sense of place. Berg was determined to shoot the film's exteriors in Odessa and environs, and we see and feel the Big Empty bleakness of West Texas, the way it can make its people desperate for something to root for as if their lives were on the line. Getting it done, "winning state," are fierce obsessions in Odessa, and neutrality is simply not allowed.
We also see, and this is one of the film's strengths, the pressures all this celebrity places on players who are finally just teenage boys, who don't know quite how to react when adults pepper them with advice and adulation and want to take their pictures in the local fast food stops.
Noticeably troubled by this is quarterback Mike Winchell (a strong Lucas Black), a shy and serious young man who calls everyone "sir" and is introduced, in an involving scene, verbally running plays with his hard-scrabble mother.
Completely opposite in temperament is Boobie Miles (Derek Luke, excellent as always), the supremely confident running back already pegged as a Heisman Trophy contender. And then there is running back Don Billingsley (newcomer Garrett Hedlund), whose overdone struggles with his intimidating alcoholic father (country singer Tim McGraw) is more standard issue and less involving than the film realizes.
Trying to ride herd, so to speak, over all these personalities is quietly forceful coach Gary Gaines, whose real-life counterpart insisted his character not curse on screen. Persuasively played by the protean Billy Bob Thornton (whose father was an Arkansas high school basketball coach), Gaines shrewdly alternates between quiet intensity and bring-it-on emotionalism. But then something happens, something no one is prepared for, and the pressures on both coach and team increase geometrically.