In towns all over the country, high school football is a religion. Parents see scholarships in their children's future, rivalries are huge between schools and, in the case of some small towns, the high school football team is something everyone can get behind. This has been explored before in the documentary "Go Tigers!" and in fictional films like "Varsity Blues". Based upon Buzz Bissinger's best-selling book, "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream", "Friday Night Lights" takes a look at the 1988 football season of the Odessa-Permian Panthers, a highly regarded football team in West Texas that has real championship hopes.
The focus is, at first, on James "Boobie" Miles (Derek Luke), a star player for the team that often leads the way to wins. When he goes down with an injury, it's up to quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) and running backs Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young) and Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) to pick up the slack. Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) is the town's hero when the team wins, but - in a town where families quiz players on plays - he'd best not show his face if there's anything new in the "L" column of his team's record ("How does Alaska sound?", his wife asks at one point.) That kind of pressure also falls on the players (one character says, "it's supposed to be fun", but it's difficult to imagine it is when the weight of a town is on your shoulders), who are looking to get out of the town, imagining bright futures elsewhere. James, after his injury, sees NFL hopes vanish.
All of the players have their own subplots - alcoholic father, dealing with a potentially career-ending injury, etc. - but they are handled well. Director Peter Berg's documentary style also helps. This is a very grounded feature - there's the usual yelling by the coaches, but no one takes it over-the-top, and the gritty, desaturated look further adds to the feeling of reality. There's no swelling score to highlight Big Emotional Moments here - the film earns its drama. Berg may overdo it a bit with the shots of the town and the radio announcers talking about the team on the soundtrack, but in a lot of towns, it's like that. It also helps that the characters are well-played by a series of (mostly) unknown actors and the characters, as written, are nicely developed and compelling.
The picture looks great, too - cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler gets right into the action (the football footage is well-done and should be easy to follow, even for those unfamiliar with the game), with a lot of well-done hand-held work. Editing is also excellent, and the picture is well-paced - I looked at the clock once and was surprised to find that the picture was nearly over. Performances are uniformly good, with Billy Bob Thornton offering a strong lead performance that, as usual for the actor, never calls attention to itself.
"Friday Night Lights" is one of those movies that people may dismiss as sounding familiar, but the picture manages to offer a more realistic portrayal of the situation than most similar films, and bypass the cliches - resulting in a compelling, winning drama. I've always thought Peter Berg was an okay actor, but with with this and the mindlessly entertaining "The Rundown", he looks to be a very promising director.
VIDEO: "Friday Night Lights" is presented by Universal Home Video in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality does suffer from a couple of issues, but the majority of the film looked terrific. Sharpness and detail during most scenes was excellent, as the image retained excellent small object detail and strong overall definition. However, some wide shots did look visibly a bit softer than all the rest.
The picture did show some shimmering at times, but no edge enhancement was noticed. Some slight instances of pixelation were spotted, but they didn't cause a distraction. The print looked to be in superb condition, with no specks, marks, dirt or other faults. The film's desaturated color palette appeared accurately rendered and without fault. Flesh tones were natural, as well.
SOUND: "Friday Night Lights" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 by Universal. The film's soundtrack is good in terms of quality, although I thought it was really only adequate in terms of activity. Surrounds do not kick in quite as much as I'd expect, as the games could have had more sound effects from the rear speakers, whether it be sounds of the game or ambience like crowd noise. Audio quality was excellent, with a dynamic, rich-sounding score and clear dialogue.
EXTRAS: Although it's noted nowhere on the box, there is a commentary from director Peter Berg and writer Buzz Bissinger. Bissinger, who wrote the book the film is based upon, discusses the realities of small town football and, more specifically, the team and town portrayed in the film (such as pointing out some elements dramatized for the film.) Apparently, Berg is Bissinger's cousin, so the two have a funny chemistry in this commentary, joking around about each other's comments and bouncing ideas back-and-forth about the making of the film.
Next, no less than 21 minutes worth of deleted scenes are offered, although no optional commentary is available for these sequences. "Peter Berg Discusses a Scene in the Movie" has the director chatting about a new scene that was to be added after the studio saw the first cut of the movie. "Player Cam" is a short featurette that visits with the actors portraying the players in the movie. "Tim McGraw: Off the Stage" is a short piece that interviews the actor/musician. "The True Story of the 1988 Permian Panthers" is a 23-minute look at the real team that's portrayed in "Friday Night Lights".
Final Thoughts: "Friday Night Lights" is not a flawless sports movie, but it's a great one, with compelling characters and a lot of heart. Universal's DVD edition provides very good image quality, fine audio and a few solid supplements. Recommended.