Friday Night Lights
Few would dispute the fact that for people all over the world sports is more than a means to pass a few hours. Sports teams have replaced Olympus with the star players the pantheon of gods. In many small towns in American, ones too little to have professional teams the local high school teams provides a means to express the hopes and pride of the community. Among all the possible sports to drive men in a community to a frenzy football reigns supreme, the film Friday Night Lights depicts such a small town and the all consuming need to have their high school football team win. The film, based on the top selling novel, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream, by H.G. Bissinger explore the pressure on not only the young men on the team but the man that couches them, Gary Gains (Billy Bob Thornton). Gains is in the difficult position of being the adult responsible for the safety of children, no matter how large they may be, and meeting the expectations of the town. Many people know the folks shown here in this community, people that peaked in high school, who found those days to be the pinnacle of their lives. The still wear their old team jackets, still have their championship rings on their fingers and define themselves through the scoring record of the current players. The current superstar of the gridiron is Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), a natural leader and player extraordinaire. When he blows out his knee in the first game of the season he toughs it out, continuing to play against all reason, barely literate, the only hope the boy sees for his future is football. All of Odessa Texas depends on the athletic abilities of this young man. The couch knows the boy should be on the side lines for this season but pressure from the town, including the father of a boy on the team (Tim McGraw) is incredible.
This is certainly not the film to take on this phenomenon, surely it will not be the last but it is one of the better one to tackle (no pun intended) the issues. The boys playing the game will within a few years replace their fathers, reliving their lives through their son’s games. It is a never ending cycle that persists generation after generation. Couches like Gains are always the ones stuck in the middle. They are able to continue in their jobs only if they bring in a winning season. Once the team loses blame has to be assigned and rather than focus it on the players, the children of the citizens, the couch is sacrificed. There are many stereotypes present in the film. Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) the quite quarterback who wants to win for his sick mother is just one example. What makes the movie work is the way the script provides a touch of humanity to each character.
Once again Billy Bob Thornton delivers. This actor has one of the greatest ranges in acting today. He can play the unsympathetic fool in films like Bad Santa and turn around and present to the audience an in depth character study as he does so ably here. Thornton gives us a man that is conflicted by the very nature of his chosen profession. Caught between the ethical thing to do and giving the town that pays him what they need weighs heavily on this character. Sitting in our living rooms it may be easy to say ethics should win out but a couch is there to win games. It seems that every singer now wants to act. Many try, most fail but Tim McGraw has the innate talent to pull off his role. As a country boy at heart McGraw knows the man he portrays, a man defined by past glories, wanting his son to succeed in life and with his only focus football. Derek Luke also gives a great performance that displays a lot of heart. He came to the attention of America with his title role in Antwone Fisher and this film shows the young man has talent to spare.
This is Peter Berg’s first time with a high profile film and he does a fantastic job in the director’s chair. He spent the better part of a year research small town high school foot ball and this dedication to realism pays off for us watching the film. Berg manages to go beyond the run of the mill sports drama by using just the right amount of exposition balanced with gripping football action. He has a natural eye for how to frame a scene. Many of the details in the background will unfortunately be loss when this film is ruined by the dreaded words "modified to fit your television screen’. Check out the reaction shots of the townsfolk as they watch the games; they are completely swept away by the thrill of the game. Berg uses light cues to help reinforce the emotional impact of the actors. He has excellent control over the camera work, providing angles that bring you right into the lives of these people. The pacing of the film is such that there are no dead spots; you will not need the fast forward button watching this movie. Berg used actual footage of the real team’s games in the film, taking care to match the jerseys. The real Boobie Miles can even be seen in one shot. It is this commitment to detail that sets this film apart from others in the genre.
Universal has given this film the DVD release it deserves. The anamorphic 2.35:1 is well mastered, clean and crisp with no artifacts or edge problems. The Dolby 5.1 audio track booms out during the game play but is clear enough to catch every word of dialogue. The extras are better than the typical ones found in sports films. There is a featurette on the transition McGraw had to go through from country singer to actor. It provided an amusing behind the scenes look at what has become a common occurrence. The real players and supporters of Permian High are given a featurette helping the audience to see just how well this film told their story. A special ‘player’s cam’ look at the six weeks of training the actors and real athletes underwent. Top this off with some deleted scenes and you have a entertaining film for the whole family.