Adapted from journalist H.G. Bissinger's non-fiction best seller Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream, Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights (2004) provides a sense of all that. In this docudrama about the 1988 varsity football season for the Odessa Permian Panthers Berg shows players lavished with praise, gifts and girls, a star black athlete hoping to go pro someday left with nothing when he injures his knee, a father-son relationship brought to its breaking point by football, and boorish money men that control the town council and the boosters' club using their clout to decide whether or not the coach's contract gets renewed for another two years.
Against this downbeat backdrop, Berg constructs a thrilling sports movie replete with most of the clichés of the genre right down to an inspiring win-one-for-the-Gipper halftime speech, though even here Berg offers at least one surprise on the Panthers' underdog quest to become state champions against the bigger, badder Carter Cowboys of Dallas.
On the commentary track Berg says he decided to shoot Friday Night Lights in a documentary style. By this he means he used a lot of handheld camera work with seemingly spontaneous focusing. However, Friday Night Lights hardly looks like a documentary with its quick cuts to a half dozen or more angles for nearly every scene. Throughout, Berg keeps up a frantic pace with few shots lasting more than three seconds and most much less. Even with the quick cuts, Berg is unwilling to allow for any static shots - the cameras are always either shifting focus or gliding around the action.
The music is no less attention-seeking than the cinematography. A period specific but perhaps overly-cool soundtrack is mixed with a great score principally composed by the post-rock group Explosions in the Sky. While nearly all the music selections were appealing, the insistence that everything be underscored to heighten the dramatic impact can feel overdone on the smaller, more intimate scenes.
Where the editing, cinematography, and music of Friday Night Lights really delivers is in its depictions of the games themselves. A sports docudrama succeeds or fails on its ability to recreate the thrill of the sport. Here Berg triumphs, especially in the final game which takes up about twenty minutes of screen time, but is a pleasure to watch throughout. Berg makes old David-and-Goliath sports clichés feel fresh here by perfectly capturing the swagger and win-at-all-costs nastiness not only of the Carter Cowboys themselves, but also of their coaches, cheerleaders and marching band.
Although much of the off-the-field drama feels rushed and contrived, it mostly succeeds, thanks to the acting chops of the ensemble cast. Of particular note is the nuanced performance by Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Gaines, and the surprisingly convincing acting of country singer Tim McGraw as a former state champion pressuring his son to live up to his expectations.
Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH, Spanish and French.