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Friday Night Lights

Universal // PG-13 // January 6, 2009
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Chris Neilson | posted January 14, 2009 | E-mail the Author
High school football matters most in communities that have little else. Odessa, a West Texas oil boom town with its best years behind it, is such a community. Though poverty is endemic and opportunities are few, the town of 90,000 has built a 19,000-seat varsity football stadium. To fill this stadium, the town prepares boys through years of rigorous physical training under coaches that earn more than principals. For two years, the boys that play varsity football in Odessa have the opportunity to be Gods by winning coveted State Football Championship rings. A few might be lucky enough to earn a scholarship to play ball for a third-rate college somewhere, but for nearly all the players these two years will be the apex of their lives. Typically given substandard educations leaving them unprepared to do anything other than play ball, most will live out the rest of their years dreaming about their glory days like characters in some country-western version of a Bruce Springsteen song.

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.

The main feature is encoded in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video. The 2.35:1 image looks nearly film-like. Film grain has been retained, images are typically sharp (when in focus anyway) and finely textured, and the de-saturated Texas vistas contrast nicely with the vivid colors on the gridiron.

The main feature is available in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix and with Spanish (5.1 DTS) and French (5.1 DD) dubs. The dialogue is always clean and clear on the lossless DTS-HD English track, but the mix is surprisingly front-heavy with little use of the rear speakers even in the stadium scenes.

Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH, Spanish and French.


  • Audio Commentary -- In addition to Peter Berg who co-wrote the screenplay and directed the film, the commentary features journalist H.G. Bissinger who wrote the book upon which the film is based, and is Berg's cousin. Bissinger and Berg have many interesting observations to share about events and people depicted in the film. Unfortunately, Bissinger clearly feels the responsibility for ensuring that there's no dead time on the commentary track and his principal means of doing this is by complementing Berg whenever he can think of nothing else to say. Bissinger also suffers a strange tick of needing to say "really, really" frequently. At first, I thought this might provide the cue for a good drinking game until I realized nobody would survive that game- it really, really is that bad.
  • Deleted Scenes (22 min., SD)
  • Featurettes - Six standard-definition featurettes are also included: "Peter Berg Discusses a Scene in the Movie" (1 min.); "Player Cam" (4 min.); "Tim McGraw: Off the Stage" (6 min.); "Story of the 1988 Permian Panthers" (24 min.) featuring several of the actual players upon which the characters were based; "Behind the Lights" (26 min.) about the making of the film; and, "Gridiron Gang" (14 min.) about casting and training the on-field extras.

Final Thoughts:
Though it pulls some of the punches of Bissinger's eponymous best seller, Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights strikes a fine balance between crowd-pleasing sports flick and serious drama.

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