Set in West Texas in 1988, the film (directed by Peter Berg, a cousin of Bissinger's whose affinity for the gridiron was on display in the opening moments of his last film, "The Rundown") follows the season of Odessa, Texas' Permian Panthers as they aim for a fifth state championship. But in Odessa, football is more than a game--it's a way of life. In a town where everyone wears a blue collar but the high-school football coach earns a $60,000 a year and the stadium is the biggest high-school football field in the nation, everyone has a stake in whether these 17-year-old boys win or lose. (What's left out, natch, is how all of this attention affects the members of the community who aren't fans and the kids in the school whose education and extracurricular activities are sidelined in favor of a $6 million stadium.)
Fine performances throughout the cast lend humanity to the insanity. Billy Bob Thornton, whose father was a high-school basketball coach in Arkansas, continues to demonstrate versatility as an actor with his nuanced portrayal of the phlegmatic coach Gary Gaines as a serious student of the game with a deep affection for his players, who handles the community's incessant interference with both palpable inner conflict and a twinkle of amusement. Country singer Tim McGraw makes his big-screen debut with a sensitive turn as a storied Panther player now living vicariously though his son and struggling with how to express his aspirations for the boy. Among the senior players, Jay Hernandez as tight end Brian Chavez, is sorely underused, but Lucas Black as insecure quarter back Mike Winchell; Derek Luke as running back Boobie Miles, around whose raw talent the team has been built; Garrett Hedlund as the tortured tailback Don Billingsley; and Lee Jackson as linebacker and soul of the team Ivory Christian are so superb that they disappear into their roles.
Berg's gritty camerawork, accompanied by a loud, driving electric guitar score, at once portrays the desolation of the setting with a desaturated hue, the intensity of the characters' interpersonal experiences with a darting handheld camera, and the physicality of the play with a multiple-angle style developed by NFL Films. Meanwhile, Ratliff Stadium itself, a house of worship where the legacy of the team is literally written on the walls, is photographed with a reverence heretofore reserved for religious sites.
The result is an emotionally draining viewing experience that only briefly threatens to be undermined by the requisite climactic locker-room pep talk that teeters ever so slightly toward the saccharine. Still, there's a lot of truth here--how the crack of cartilage can signal the end of a season, or a life; how the guys on the other side of the line of scrimmage may be bigger and tougher, but ultimately they're just like you; and how cyclical the sport is. "The loser plays basketball," one commentator quips during the playoffs. For the fan, there's always next year. But, for some of these boys, this is it. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund and Tim McGraw. Directed by Peter Berg. Written by David Aaron Cohen and Peter Berg. Produced by Brian Grazer. A Universal release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for thematic issues, sexual content, language, some teen drinking and rough sports action. Running time: 116 min