Directed by Peter Berg, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Lee Jackson, Lee Thompson Young and Tim McGraw.
In one of his many philosophical musings, soccer legend Johan Cruyff said that sometimes the difference between right and wrong was "often not more than five metres". Peter Berg's film looks at a completely different sport - American football - but the sentiment remains the same, even if the margin of error in this particular case is even less.
One thing unites everyone in the town of Odessa, Texas: their high school football team, the Permian Panthers. The Panthers' history is illustrious, but their last state title win was four years ago and now the pressure is on the team's very well-paid sophomore coach Gary Gaines (Thornton) to deliver. The teenagers Gaines has at his disposal are a talented bunch, but their collective spark is dulled by the weight of history, over-confidence or low self-esteem and the pressure to get out of Odessa on a college football scholarship.
Boobie Miles (Luke) is the team's star running back, a player whose brilliance on the field is contrasted by his absence of humility off it. Mike Winchell (Black) is the quarterback caught between wanting to get out of Odessa for good and caring for a house-bound mother with a mental illness. Don Billingsley (Hedlund) is the fullback whose self-belief is shot from the treatment he receives from his father (McGraw), an abusive drinker who once won the state title with the Panthers. These three are the lynchpins of Gaines' team, but the coach knows that everyone has to play above themselves if the Panthers are to overcome their lack of physical size when facing the other teams in the league.
The Panthers begin the season with a victory, but then disaster strikes. In the second game, with just minutes to go, Boobie gets injured. He lies about how badly he's hurt and in his comeback match does himself even more damage. Now Gaines has to look to benchwarmer Chris Comer (Young) for the rest of the season, while his Odessa paymasters keep cranking up the pressure on both coach and team. From contenders to underdogs in the space of just a few weeks...can Gaines now convince his players that their team is about more than just one person?
Having made the wicked black comedy 'Very Bad Things' and the atrocious Rock-starring action vehicle 'Welcome to the Jungle', human drama hasn't featured too high on actor-turned-director Peter Berg's movie CV thus far. But despite its sporting clichés and big sentiments, 'Friday Night Lights' tugs at the heart from the off. Based on the true story of the Permian Panthers' 1988 season and the subsequent book of the same name by Pulitzer winner Buzz Bissinger, 'Friday Night Lights' sees Berg shooting in a grainy, documentary style to up the reality level. And he doesn't pull any punches in showing a town in awe of its athletes on the field, but caring little about the lives of the boys behind the helmets. Poverty, family break-ups and racism abound, but all these can be forgotten about once the team does what's expected of it on a Friday night.
Even those with no interest in American football will find themselves caught up in the terminology and tactics, and if Berg could've spent a little more time focussing on the human stories off-the-field, he makes up for it with the excitement on it. Oliver Stone's 'Any Given Sunday' was brilliantly shot but ultimately hollow, here you care about every wallop and missed chance that the Panthers endure. The performances are all excellent, with Thornton bringing a quiet dignity to the role of Gaines, his former 'Sling Blade' co-star Black capturing the confusion and courage of a boy crossing into adulthood and country singer Tim McGraw a revelation as the father haunted by regrets. It's a team effort, though, and everyone here gets their moment to shine.
A Friday night movie if ever there was one.