Football movie a ‘Miracle’ in the Texas desert
If Kimberly hadn’t mentioned “Miracle” – which I watched in Colorado when I was looking for a job last winter – I might’ve been able to resist referencing it.I’m glad she did mention it, because I’m struggling to separate “Miracle” – the movie about the gold medalist 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team – from “Friday Night Lights,” because the latter reminded me of what “Miracle” aspired to be.Screenwriter David Aaron Cohen and director Peter Berg adapted H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s book of the same name – usually a sign of strong source material. But unlike many movies based on books, “Friday Night Lights” doesn’t reach farther than its grasp. Certainly Bissinger’s book provides ample illustrations of just how big football is in Texas, and expecting any movie – even one two hours and eight minutes long – to capture that as successfully as a book is pretty demanding.That’s also why “Friday Night Lights” reminds me of “Miracle,” and why I enjoyed it more: The source material of the Miracle on Ice is the stuff of legend – something that contains enough drama on its own that a documentary might serve it better than further dramatization. Having (strangely) never set foot in Texas or Ohio, maybe I needed Berg’s dramatization of his cousin’s book to drive home the point that high school football is the Miracle on Ice’s equivalent in Odessa, Texas.The subject behind “Friday Night Lights” also helps balance its focus, and I need “Miracle” to explain why. “Miracle” seemed unable to decide whether it was a Herb Brooks biopic or a likeable-underdogs ensemble flick and bit off more than it could chew, so at the end I didn’t feel like I knew anything more about Mike Eruzione or the Conehead line. The Texans in our midst might disagree, but playing Permian High School head coach Gary Gaines doesn’t carry the same baggage as playing Brooks.Billy Bob Thornton makes a great Gaines, and not just because you can practically feel him choking down his “Bad Santa” instincts every time Gaines lets slip a “gosh” or a “golly” on the sidelines. Berg’s restrained approach focuses on Gaines, his family and just a few Permian Panthers – quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black, who played the kid alongside Thornton in “Sling Blade”), legatee running back Don Billingsley, star running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), Miles’ backup Chris Comer, laconic D-lineman Ivory Christian and safety Brian Chavez. Less really is more, allowing Berg to reveal enough about the players to make them more than the mere jock stereotypes that populate high school football movies.While the football action does go a little over the top as the Panthers progress through the season toward a final game eerily reminiscent of a recent Super Bowl, it doesn’t detract from what the movie’s about: the lives of a coach and his players in a small west Texas town. It might seem like an oddball analogy, but the great white shark in “Jaws” made a lesson in small-town civics and economics a lot more palatable for the moviegoing public. “Friday Night Lights” dispenses with the killer shark in favor of a killer Panthers football team.As coaches like to remind sportswriters, there’s nothing mystical about winning football games – it’s just about taking care of business. There’s nothing really miraculous about “Friday Night Lights”; it’s just a solid gameplan and good execution that results in something of a “Miracle” in the Texas desert.Dan Thomas has spent a fair number of Friday nights covering high school football under the lights in Colorado, North Carolina and Nevada.Dan Thomas has spent a fair number of Friday nights covering high school football under the lights in Colorado, North Carolina and Nevada.
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