WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
In its glossy efforts to portray the insanity of high-school football in West Texas, writer/director Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights carries some surprising emotional heft. Going into it, you might expect a certain kind of cheery, formulaic Hollywood sports flick in which our protagonists face inevitable challenges, overcome them, and win the big game while absorbing a big ol' wallop of redemption. Instead, Berg steadfastly avoids such clichés, delving a bit more deeply into his story and setting and characters, and delivering an above-average sports meditation.
Based on Buzz Bissinger's nonfiction bestseller of the same name, Friday Night Lights chronicles the 1988 season of the celebrated Odessa-Permian Panthers, a West Texas high-school team that faces impossibly high expectations from all directions: the school, the community, even the players' friends and families. Stress is sky-high in this obsessive atmosphere. An effective series of shots shows the town shut down in anticipation of the Friday-night games—football is bigger than church in this community. The team's coach—Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton)—comes to the school facing none-too-subtly-expressed expectations of an undefeated season. As in past years, the Panthers are destined for the state championship—right, Coach?
Gaines has assembled a promising group of kids, primary among them a dazzling running back named "Boobie" Miles (Derek Luke). Ego-pumped Boobie is Gaines' ticket to an undefeated season and that inevitable championship. Also key to the success of the team are quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black, whom you might remember, much younger, from Thornton's own Sling Blade), and running backs Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) and Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young). And when the seemingly indestructible Boobie goes down for the count with a knee injury and must miss the remainder of the season, those out-of-the-limelight players must find it within themselves to carry their team to improbable victory—all while enduring those massive expectations.
The film does an admirably stylish job of showing the pressures put on these big-hearted boys, giving each one his own unique problems. Boobie has the film's most obvious ailment, but Mike and Don deal with more personal demons that could end up as debilitating as Boobie's. Mike struggles to care for a sick mother, and Don is helpless in the face of an emotionally abusive father (played with powerful understatement by country singer Tim McGraw) The fact that the film pays so much attention to the boys' off-the-field lives is as much a credit to the film as it is a disadvantage. Although Berg and cowriter David Aaron Cohen try valiantly to get into their characters' heads, they sometimes try too hard, feeding their actors lines that stumble awkwardly on teenaged lips. There's probably one too many scenes in which these stressed teens expound philosophically about their position in life.
Worse, although we want to immerse ourselves in the machinations of obsessive football and the grueling ways in which these poor youngsters come to excel at their sport, we get stunningly few scenes of Gaines actually interacting on the practice field with his players. The day-to-day experience of practice and even games is relegated more often to montage than to dramatic study. The result is a certain emptiness in the middle of the film. You see the effects of football on the characters, but you don't really see much on the actual playing field. Even the potentially dramatic, decisive games leading up to the championship game are skipped over in favor of the main event.
Friday Night Lights does deliver the punchy moments that you crave in a sports flick. It's got the big plays and the unbelievable successes. It's got the inevitable rise toward the top, and it's got the hold-your-breath championship game—at the Houston Astrodome, no less. The film has an infectious style that adds a lot to the scenes on the field, and sound effects are used powerfully, adding a brutal sense of realism. And I can't help but be impressed by many of the choices Berg has made in his desire to create an emotionally weighty, unpredictable sports film. But in a way, that desire is a tad too transparent. You might say Friday Night Lights is almost predictable in its unpredictability, and it ends up feeling just the slightest bit manipulative. No, the film doesn't give us the Hollywood ending we expect, but it's not a revelatory ending either. And combined with a scene of father-son reconciliation that doesn't ring true, it finishes the film on a note of frustration.
I guess it's a testament to Friday Night Lights and Peter Berg that I want to know more about the film's characters. But in this case, that's mostly thanks to some extremely effective performances as opposed to Berg's storytelling. I come away thinking that his film could have done a better job showing us the relationship between coach and players. Other than that, Friday Night Lights is a fine accomplishment, all the more so because of its style. Shot mostly with handheld cameras, there's an intimacy to the style that brings us closer to the subject matter.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Universal presents Friday Night Lights in a rich anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. Detail and depth are top-notch throughout, even in mid-backgrounds, although I noticed some softness in wide background shots. The color palette is rendered flawlessly, delivering accurate fleshtones and accurately capturing cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler's style. The source print is pristine, and I noticed few if any compression artifacts. A fine effort.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track provides an accurate recreation of the theatrical experience. Dialog is clear and resonant, with no distortion at the high end. The score comes across powerfully, entering the surrounds where effective. Overall, this is a front-tending track with subtle surround use, but the rear information is still moderately engaging.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Primary among the extra features is an Audio Commentary with Director Peter Berg and Writer Buzz Bissinger. Bissinger grounds this commentary in the story's history, even as Berg talks about his contributions to the script and the actual making of the film. The dichotomy provides a very interesting global look at the story. Both are spirited commentators, and Berg has a nice, dry sense of humor.
Perhaps the disc's most interesting supplement is The Story of the 1988 Permian Panthers, a 23-minute featurette talks about the film's origin in the non-fiction bestseller by H.G. Bissinger. The coolest aspect of this piece is that we get to meet the actual people who were part of the 1988 team, including the real Boobie Miles, Don Billingsley, Mike Winchell, and Brian Chavez, and each of them is given a nice little spotlight, complete with period photos and footage. We also get historical background behind some of the film's other characters, such as Charlie Billingsley and Coach Gary Gaines. And we get the true story of Boobie's injury, and the real Mile's thoughts about it. The piece ends with a nice reunion between three of the 1988 players.
You get 22 minutes of so-called Action-Packed Deleted Scenes. Most of these are scene extensions, or at least you get a lot of finished-film footage surrounding these scenes so that you can put them in context. There's also some powerful character moments that would have benefited the film, including some good character definition in the "skeet-shooting" scene, and some nice coaching moments from Gaines (which the film needed more of). You'll also find a deleted subplot about a school disqualified from competition because of one student's grades—a situation that mirrors the history behind this film. Some of these scenes suffer from dialog that sounds a bit too mature coming from the mouths of teenagers, and I can understand why most were cut.
In the 1-minute Peter Berg Discusses a Scene in the Movie, the director speaks from the film set about shooting the Buddy's Burgers scene. Then, the actual 3-minute scene from the film plays out.
Ryan's Player Cam is a 4-minute lark by actor Ryan Jacobs, in which he captures a lot of the on-field and locker-room behind-the-scenes banter between the other actors on the team, as well as some of the crew.
Tim McGraw: Off the Stage is a 6-minute look at the actor/country star who plays Charlie Billingsworth. In interview snippets, he talks about his approach to the character, and director Berg talks about McGraw's acting strengths. McGraw also talks about the difference between performing on stage and performing for the camera.
Wrapping things up is a text-based Cast and Filmmakers section the provides generous biographical information about half a dozen of the key players.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Friday Night Lights isn't perfect. It's a little hollow in its center, but it sure tries hard to get into the hearts and minds of its characters, and for that I give it a lot of credit. Image and sound are above average, and supplements are illuminating.