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Lights’ a true sports wonder

Sean Sweany | Tuesday, September 5, 2006

With the arrival of Notre Dame football back in South Bend this weekend, there will be many opportunities to revel in the gridiron sport, especially watching inspirational movies in the days leading up to games. While “Rudy” is always an obviously popular choice, there are many other fine films that can fire up one’s adrenaline before Saturday rolls around.

One such movie is “Friday Night Lights,” a 2004 film by Peter Berg (“The Rundown”) based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book by H.G. Bissinger that showcases the true story of the poor town of Odessa, Texas and its 1988 football team, the Permian Panthers. The crazy, almost maniacal love of Texas high school football becomes clear in this movie and appears to rival, if not surpass, that of Notre Dame.

Billy Bob Thornton (“Bad Santa”) plays Gary Gaines, the head coach who must try to guide the Panthers to the state championship amidst distractions and high expectations placed upon him and his team from the town of Odessa.

His exhortations to “be perfect” and urgings that “we will win state” rest on the hopes of star running back Boobie Miles, played by Derek Luke (“Antwone Fisher,” “Glory Road”), a flashy, cocky superstar who entertains dreams of the NFL.

When Boobie gets hurt early in the season, the team must band together behind quiet, humble quarterback Matt Winchel, played by Lucas Black (“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”) to keep their hopes alive to win state. The rest of the movie follows their quest and chronicles the emotional highs and lows that come along with it.

The film is well acted, most notably on the part of Thonrton as an emotional, inspirational coach, but the young unknown actors that play members of the football team deliver believable and appropriate performances.

Singer Tim McGraw portrays the alcoholic and abusive father of one of the players. A former player himself, McGraw’s Charles Billingsley won a state championship in his own day and expects the same from his son. Several other family conflicts like this pepper the plot of the film and add real human problems to the pressure of Texas high school football.

Berg’s camera is constantly moving and changing focus, hinting at an instability and uncertainty among the characters in the film as to whether or not football and remaining in Odessa are the most important things in the world. The only static shots depict scenes of the town from afar, showing the bleakness and poverty of rural Texas in the 1980s.

As a football movie, “Friday Night Lights” exists in a broad spectrum of films that have been made about the sport. The writing, acting and gritty story-telling here enable the film to stand as one of the better football movies ever made.

Deeper and more real than films like “Remember the Titans” and “Varsity Blues,” it also shows more humor and vitality than “Any Given Sunday” and is regarded by some as one of the best sports movies of all time.

The widescreen DVD of “Friday Night Lights” presents the film clearly, and any player with Dolby Surround Sound will get a workout from the bass-heavy and rousing soundtrack. There are several worthwhile extras on the DVD, including a documentary on the real 1988 Permian Panthers and an extended interview with Tim McGraw detailing his thoughts on acting versus singing.

As is so often true with football, when the lights are turned on, the intensity ramps up, the stakes are raised and emotion runs higher. “Friday Night Lights” is a movie that turns on those lights and then basks and thrives in their intensity. It stands as one of the best football movies of all time and is worthy of a spot in any DVD collection.