A war movie disguised as a sports picture, Friday Night Lights keeps its attention riveted on the field of battle, which in this case happens to be a football field. Every Friday night, squads of young soldiers across Texas don their uniforms and march out to face down the enemy, while the generals look on from the sidelines hurling epithets and encouragement in equal measure. Sure, people don't actually die in these skirmishes, but it would be wrong to say that there aren't any casualties. Even when they're winning, the grunts live under constant pressure to be better than perfect. And when their campaign is over, they are cut loose and forced to make it on their own, left with only the memories of their former glory.

If this seems like an overly melodramatic way to depict the world of high-school football, you've clearly never spent any time in smalltown America. For many of these communities, particularly in Texas, football isn't just a sport-it's a way of life. Stores close early on game night and players and coaches are awarded almost unlimited power-provided that they're having a good season, of course. This is the landscape H.G. Bissinger captured in his acclaimed 1988 book Friday Night Lights, on which the movie is based. Chronicling a season in the life of Odessa's Permian Panthers, one of the best high-school teams in Texas history, Bissinger exposed the less-than-savory aspects of the town's football myopia. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist was essentially run out of the state after Friday Night Lights hit stores, but his book remains a must-read among football enthusiasts and teenagers.

For the film version, writer-director Peter Berg and his co-writer David Aaron Cohen don't dwell on the seedier side of high-school football, but they thankfully don't ignore it either. In one of the movie's more telling scenes, a college scout all but promises Panthers quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) a scholarship, provided he leads his team to the state championship. Later on, Coach Gary Gaines (a nicely subdued Billy Bob Thornton) returns home after the Panthers suffer another loss to find several 'For Sale' signs planted on his lawn. Berg stages these moments in a completely matter-of-fact manner, as if they're just a part of everyday life in Odessa. Filmed like a newsreel documentary, with lots of handheld camerawork and quick zooms, Friday Night Lights reaches for an aura of authenticity and more often than not the movie achieves it, although Berg does lay the foreshadowing on a little thick at times. Early on, the team's star player Boobie Miles (Derek Luke, in his best performance to date) brags so much about his on-field skills that you know he's got some major heartbreak coming. Sure enough, Boobie is seriously injured in the first game of the season and suddenly has to decide what to do with the rest of his life.

Where Friday Night Lights really excels is in the football sequences, which are superbly staged and edited. As someone who normally finds football about as exciting as golf, I was often on the edge of my seat, particularly during the climactic championship game. Unlike Oliver Stone, who depicted football as a kind of WWE event in his daffy (but very entertaining) Any Given Sunday, Berg keeps the action within the realm of plausibility. The sound team deserves a special mention for their evocative work; you leave the theatre with the sound of crunching bones and heavy grunts still ringing in your ears.

Sneaking into theatres amidst a batch of high-profile releases, Friday Night Lights could very well get lost in the end-of-the-year shuffle. It doesn't help that the marketing campaign makes it seem like Varsity Blues 2, when in fact it's a much more thoughtful film. Still, this is the kind of movie that thrives on word of mouth, and judging from the enthusiastic audience response at the screening I attended, Friday Night Lights may yet prove itself a contender.

-Ethan Alter