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Country Music Star Tim McGraw Makes Movie Debut in <i>Friday Night Lights</i> - 2004-10-13

The passion for and occasionally obsession with sports in small town America explodes on the screen in a fact-based drama about high school football. Alan Silverman has a look at Friday Night Lights.

In Odessa, Texas the Permian High School "Panthers" football team is a source of pride, hope and dreams.

Their 20,000 seat stadium is the biggest high school football field in the country: as modern and elaborate as most professional team stadiums. When the field lights come on for a Friday night game, streets are deserted; restaurants and shops in Odessa close down with signs in their windows reading "gone to the game." When the team wins, its heroes can do no wrong.

For these 17-year-olds, success on the football field may be their only ticket out of the dusty prairie town.

Billy Bob Thornton stars as Permian head coach Gary Gaines, who led the championship team in the late 1980's when the film (and the book on which it is based) is set; but Thornton says he came to the role with an understanding based on his own early years in Arkansas.

"I was playing a Texas high school football coach, which is not a huge stretch because my dad was a high school basketball coach and I've been around that world," Thornton explains. "It's something I was pretty familiar with. We lived that way. There's nothing in this movie that doesn't happen. As a matter of fact, they could have gone further if they wanted to.

There are real fanatics back there. It's their way of life. It's the actual social life of some of these small towns," he adds. "Everything revolves around it: like the booster club guys who pull up in the car and suggest to me that I might want to win the championship. I can remember my father getting suggestions every now and then."

Country music star Tim McGraw portrays a former Permian player who is now the drunken and abusive father of a current team member.

"From his point of view, the best year of his life was his senior year in high school and everything that happened to him from that point forward, from the day he graduated - the way he felt about himself and the way people felt about him - just went downhill. Nothing ever got close to that; but now his kid isn't as good as he was, so he is frustrated that he's going to lose his dreams all over again with is kid. I think he's trying to give him advice, but he just doesn't know how to do it right," he says.

Although some of the characters are composites, they are all based on the reality that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger observed during the year he spent in Odessa researching his book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team and A Dream.

"What is the underlying theme of this movie and the book? It is about fathers and sons; it's about parents living vicariously through their kids," he explains. "I think that's really an intoxicating element of the film and the book. The parents are not evil. They're not bad people, but they get swept into it and to a certain degree they want their kids to achieve because it brings something positive within them."

Although some in the town felt the book did not show their best aspects, director Peter Berg won their approval to film Friday Night Lights on location in Odessa. The cast also features Lucas Black, Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund and Jay Hernandez as star members of the 1988 Permian Panthers.