If football is a religion to some people, Judge David Johnson wonders, "Is it kosher to eat pigskin?"
Our reviews of Friday Night Lights (Blu-Ray) (published January 12th, 2009), Friday Night Lights: The Fifth Season (published April 5th, 2011), Friday Night Lights: The Fourth Season (published August 17th, 2010), Friday Night Lights: The Second Season (published May 7th, 2008), and Friday Night Lights: The Third Season (published May 19th, 2009) are also available.
Boobie Miles: I'm an athlete. I make straight As.
In the small west Texas town of Odessa, there is only one subject, and that is football. High school football is more than a pastime, more than a sport. Using the term "religion" is a cliché, but if it were appropriate anywhere it's here in Odessa, where the Panthers from Permian High School are held as gods in the school hallways and icons on the playgrounds, and where the coach is a genius one week and a dog the next. Football is life. But more importantly, football is an escape from life. Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights explores this religion, simultaneously telling one of the more potent sports stories of the generation.
Facts of the Case
Friday Night Lights is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Buzz Bissinger (Peter Berg's cousin). Both works focus on the remarkable season of the 1988 Permian Panthers, and their quest for the Holy Grail of all small Texas football towns: the state championship. In Odessa, where the Panthers play, Friday night's football games represent the social hub of their existence; it is where neighbors and strangers gather for one cause—to mutilate their lungs cheering for their boys.
Failure is not looked upon kindly, and the buck always stops with the coach. Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade) is in his second season coaching Permian, makes more money than the high school principal, and is shouldering an immense amount of pressure to win. "Bring home state!" he's always told. His practices are watched keenly by residents and journalists. His every move is criticized on talk radio.
But Gaines is heading into the 1988 season with some true firepower. He's got the versatile steamroller Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), the quiet but powerful defensive force Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez), and the reclusive, tortured quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black). But no one outshines the true star of the team—Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), the fullback. Miles is an immense talent, lusted after by college recruiters, and eyeing the fame and fortune within his grasp. It is on his cocky shoulders that Odessa's hopes sit.
Unfortunately, one game into the season, their hopes tumble when Miles is sidelined by a brutal knee injury. Suddenly, the skies have darkened, and Gaines is deemed the goat for leaving Miles in the game. The focus shifts to Winchell, previously occupying the give-Boobie-the-ball-and-watch role, who is now called upon to complete a few passes. Meanwhile, Billingsley continues to struggle with his drunken, abusive father (Tim McGraw), a former Permian star with a championship ring.
Well, this is a sport movie, so it won't do for our team to lose the whole season, and the Permian boys don't. Through the emergence of some new stars, a more unified team mentality, and a bit of luck, the Panthers head toward the playoffs. The elusive state title beckons, but first they have a date with the Dallas-Carver team, the best in the state, comprised mainly of Mechagodzilla-sized linemen.
Movies like Friday Night Lights give me hope for the tired genre of sports films. Apart from Miracle, I can't recall many recent, noteworthy entries into the sports film canon. But Friday Night Lights is nothing like Miracle—or for that matter, any other of the Hollywood sports movies you may be used to.
Director Peter Berg, responsible for the superfluous-yet-highly-entertaining The Rundown, has put together a raw, emotional sports film—it is challenging, exciting, and unpredictable.
Remember Varsity Blues, that forgettable James Van Der Beek vehicle? Okay, full disclosure time: that's always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Buried under the MTV teeny-bop claptrap was an intriguing look into the theocracy that is Texas high school football.
Friday Night Lights takes this atmosphere and makes it a central character in the film. Look at the mammoth high school stadium, in contrast to the economically depressed surroundings; look at the all the former players, still in Odessa, wearing their championships rings as symbols of aristocracy; look at the vitriol that can be hurled at a coach from people whose life begins and ends with the standings of a high school football team.
This film is different from other sports movies—refreshingly so, I might add—for a few reasons. One, it's not necessarily "feel-good." But you will feel something. And that strikes me as a job well done. Don't expect The Mighty Ducks here.
Two, it doesn't concern itself with the X's and O's. Where Miracle succeeded in framing a distinct plan of war for the U.S. hockey team, and emphasized training and skills-building, Friday Night Lights devotes almost no screen time to Coach Gaines's strategy. With Miles down for the count, I expected some peering into how a coach completely reshapes his game plan, but that was absent here. Come game time we hear the plays called, but they don't mean anything to us. That was an element I would have liked to see—more of the behind-the-scenes work. The film certainly worked without that emphasis, but when a team has to rebound from such a devastating loss and pull it together, I would have enjoyed to see more of that rebuilding process.
Third, it's hard-hitting. Berg shoots this film with a lot of handheld camera work, and utilizes quick cuts and movements. Of all the sports films I've seen, this one struck me as the most "real"; it is as if the viewer is there, watching these events unfold. And no scenes benefit more from this style than the game sequences. There are some punishing plays transpiring on the screen, and Berg puts you onto the field. The result is action that plays out more authentically, feeling less pre-choreographed, and a locomotive pace.
Friday Night Lights moves fast, and tends to slow down once in a while to focus on just a few characters—Billingsley and his father, Winchell, Miles, and Coach Gaines. And even then, much of the characterization is implied; for example, Winchell mutters hardly a word, but when he does, they carry weight, and effectively place his character in the context of the pressure cooker. This impressed me. I was able to come away with a good sense of who these people were, without lengthy blocks of dialogue and faux exposition.
The acting here is great. Thornton takes a role that could have been hammed up and clichéd, and creates a more reserved coach; a flawed man, with a good spirit. The players are all excellent as well, the stand-outs being Lucas Black and Derek Luke (thirty years old in real life, but never for one second acting a year older than 17 in the movie). Props to Tim McGraw, a popular country singer, for accepting an unsavory role and doing a fine job with it.
This is a good-looking transfer. The film is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer, and some of the color contrasts look strong. The on-field mayhem, particularly the climactic game, is sharp and vivid. Yes, much of movie comes across as washed out, with a yellowish tone, but this is a stylistic choice and I think it adds realism. As for the sound, I would have liked a far more aggressive mix. The Dolby 5.1 mix has its moments of strength, especially when these guys get crushed on the field, but I was not nearly as enveloped in the experience as I would have liked. The ambient surround in the stadiums was reserved, and the soundtrack seemed too muffled.
The bonus features here are exactly what a sports film should require. To start off, Peter Berg and author Buzz Bissinger put together a nice commentary track, full of peripheral anecdotes about the real events as well as an elucidation of the filming process. Three featurettes are equally useful: "Player Cam" is a collection of home video footage, narrated by actors, that catch the behind-the-scenes process in a true, entertaining way (my favorite moment is Lucas Black's Sling Blade impression); "Tim McGraw: Off the Stage" is a substantial look at the country musician's foray into acting, and the challenges that come with it; finally, "The Story of the 1988 Permian Panthers" brings together the actual players and offers more insight into the characters. Together with some pretty good deleted and extended scenes, this batch of extras is a superb supplement to a great film.
For fans of sports films this is a no-brainer. For fans of any kind of films, this is a no-brainer. Friday Night Lights is now one of my favorite sports movies. It is an arresting, bittersweet tour of what a small Texas town holds precious—but the messages and the themes transcend football. Seriously, give it a look.
Not guilty. Go Patriots! (Okay, that was shameless).
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