On the very first day of pre-season practice, Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) tells his team, the Permian High Panthers of Odessa, Texas, that he expects them to be perfect. By the end of the season, in that last half-time locker room pep talk, he tells them what that means. Being perfect does not mean winning every play or making no mistakes. He wants them to go back onto the field knowing that they did everything they could have done, with “clear eyes, love in your heart, joy in your heart.”
By those terms, this film is perfect. Director/co-screenwriter Peter Berg, cousin of the author of the original book on this real-life story of one team’s 1988 season, has done everything he could have done, with clear eyes and love and joy in his heart. He has produced a movie that has both immediacy and resonance, filled with moments of authenticity and insight. It has an intentionally rough, gritty, bleached, documentary feel but Berg is in complete control, with every shot a small gem of precision and mastery.
As the movie begins, we see an almost-endless expanse of flat, brown, dusty, dried-out land and exhausted and abandoned oil rigs surrounding an impeccable rectangle of green surrounded by rows of seats. It is the high school football stadium (the real-life Permian facility). At once we see that all that is fresh and green — and important — in the town is the high school football team. We see a mother grilling her son, not on SAT vocabulary words, but on football strategy. A caller on the radio explains why the coach gets paid more than the principal — “The principal don’t get 28,000 people” to come to the school.
There are two kinds of time in the town. There are games, and there is everything else.
And there are three kinds of people in the town. First are those who are on the team now, the 17-year-olds who never have to pay for their own meals or do their own homework. Parents ask them to pose for pictures holding their babies and journalists grill them. One play can make you an instant hero — but “Odessa’s a small town, and when you screw up everyone knows.”
Then there are those who once played on the team, many of them still sporting the rings they got for winning the state championship, the rest wishing they did. And there are those who have never played but still care passionately about the team, interrupting the coach at whatever he is doing to give him their strategy for winning the state title. A fan brags about his cat named Panther and dog named Mojo (the team’s nickname). Every store in Odessa has its own specially printed “Gone to the Game” sign when it closes for football.
Within a very traditional sports movie structure, taking us through one season from the first day of practice to the championship game, Berg assembles a mosaic of gem-like moments that illuminate a much bigger picture. Like all truly great sports stories, it is about dreams, competition, families, tragedy, and triumph, about the individual and about the team. And because it is set in America, it is also about poverty, race, and class. Most of all, though, it is about characters we feel we know and care about.
Derek Luke (of Antwone Fisher and Pieces of April) is dazzling as Boobie Miles, the star player who juggles calls from college recruiters and keeps Mercedes brochures in his locker. Country singer Tim McGraw is heartbreaking as the former Panther whose life has been a disappointment since his team won State. He hopes to recapture the glory through his son but has no idea how to reach him except through insults and abuse. Lucas Black is touching as the player who is trying to care for a sick mother and “protect the town” by winning the title.
Thornton, as always easy to underappreciate because of the subtlety and natural honesty of his performances, shows us the coach’s love for the game and for the boys on the team. As he calls out, “Was that a knee?” when a player goes down or when town leaders suggest that if he does not win State he might lose his job,” we see what he is thinking and even everything that has brought him to this moment.
This is not a football movie — it is a rich and meaningful story about people who play football and the people who watch them, with respectful and poignant insights, beautiful performances, and sensitive treatment of issues that touch us all.
Parents should know that the movie has some tense family scenes with an abusive father. Underage characters drink and a character abuses alcohol. There are references to “getting laid.” The football scenes are powerfully staged and very intense. Audience members may almost feel that they are the ones getting tackled. The movie is frank in its treatment of injuries, some graphic.
Families who see this film should talk about what it feels like for these 17-year-old boys to carry so much of their family’s and the town’s sense of pride. What is the good about that? What is bad? Why would a girl say she only wanted to be “with a ball carrier?” Why was it so important to Don’s father that he succeed? Why did he define success the way he did? Did his team’s championship “carry him forever?” How do parents help their children learn what success means? If it is not football that defines success in your community, what does? What does the coach mean when he says that “all of us dig our own holes?” What is the difference between winning and losing? What would a movie about the Dallas team be like?
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Hoosiers, the true story of a small-town basketball team that competed for the state championship, Remember the Titans about the first integrated football team in an Alexandria, Virginia high school, The Slaughter Rule, with the gifted Ryan Gosling as a high school senior who plays quarterback for a six-man league, All the Right Moves with Tom Cruise, and Go Tigers!, a documentary about a high school football team in Massillon, Ohio.
They might also like to read the poem by James Wright, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” which describes boys playing football:
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.