The only fake thing in director Peter Berg’s film version of his cousin H.G. Bissinger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1990 book, Friday Night Lights, is Billy Bob Thornton’s hair. As Gary Gaines, the real-life coach of the Permian Panthers football team in Odessa, Texas, Thornton wears a piece and zips up his Bad Santa mouth. “Good gracious!” is the most you hear from Gary, even when his team loses its running back, Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), to an injury. Thornton gets inside the coach’s skin. It’s a subtle, soulful performance in a movie that otherwise goes for the jugular. Chronicling the team’s 1988 season, the film is red meat for rabid football junkies. Berg (The Rundown) takes you so deep into the action, you can hear the bones crunch.
That Berg’s film doesn’t do is get you inside the heads of the characters. That was the strength of Bissinger’s book. Onscreen, quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), tight end Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez) and running back Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young), who plays in the state-championship game for Boobie at the Houston Astrodome, are mere sketches. Garrett Hedlund registers more forcefully as tailback Don Billingsley because Berg spends time detailing the kid’s relationship with his abusive dad, played by country Tim McGraw, who proves a natural in the acting game. “After football, it’s just babies and memories,” says father to son. A little more of that personal touch and Friday Night Lights might have scored a touchdown.