As I’ve said before, I’m not a sports fan. I recognize that there are a bunch of people out there who love nothing better than to sit around on a Sunday afternoon, down a couple of beers, and watch men who are paid to professionally beat each other down as they run a ball from one end of a field to the other. Even more obsessed are the fans who love the sights, sounds, and feel of a high school football game. Apparently that obsession doesn’t get any bigger than in Texas, where high school games are treated on the same level as the pros, and everyone loves the Friday Night Lights.
So, for someone who’s not a sports fan, I was extremely impressed by Friday Night Lights, Peter Berg’s film adaptation of the novel by the same name, which tells the true story of the Odessa-Permian Panthers. In 1988 the Permian Panthers were expected to have an undefeated season and become state champions for the sixth time. Instead their star player, Boobie Miles, found himself injured after the first game, causing the team and the town to doubt the Panther’s ability to take state. As the team struggles to redefine themselves, they are challenged by their head coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thorton) to “be perfect”.
Lights takes an interesting approach in its storytelling by presenting some of the dark side of the obsession of high school football, a surprising amount of the dark side given that this film isn’t against the sport. Fans who look at the sport as an almost holy endeavor with the players as near religious crusaders put on earth to vanquish the opposing team appear among former high school heroes who live so much of their life in that time they make Al Bundy look diverse. The kids are continually told that this is the only time in their lives that is worth anything, and not to waste a moment of it. This results in people like Boobie, who has nothing left in his life once his injury takes place. His fame, his life, and his future were all based on his ability to play football, and when that ability is lost, so is Boobie.
The film also presents football in an extremely visceral manner. Berg utilizes a lot of the same montage style editing he used in The Rundown, but it works so much better here then it did in that film. The combination of fan comments mixed with footage of the games or practices, along with the seldom-ending music from Explosions in the Sky result in a film that really draws you in, and leaves you reeling and reacting when tackles get ugly.
To tell the story a lot of sports movie clichés are used, but as the film progressed I realized I was okay with that – a movie like this is why those clichés exist, so the film doesn’t have to spell out everything for you. The film uses things like the team being underdogs and pulling last minute victories as a tool, not a crutch. If more film would learn how to properly use a cliché like this film has, filmmaking would be much better for it.
With very little exception, the film keeps football as the focus at all times. We never see the student who is struggling with his grades just to play the game, or can’t read. In fact, the school side of their high school time is never brought up. Sure, a few characters get a little more development and we see how they interact with their families, but even that is usually in the context of the game – a former Panther of glory disappointed in his son’s football skills, or a supportive mother who wants her son to achieve greatness. This movie was designed to be about these kids playing football, and that’s where it keeps its focus at all times. When the kids aren’t on the field, they’re still coping with the pressures of the town’s expectations.
There are a few moments in the film that seem larger than life, and the frightening part is that most of them aren’t. The team plays football in a stadium that would make a lot of colleges jealous, but the movie was filmed on location at the real Odessa-Permian stadium. Film crews interview the boys during initial training like college crews. All of these seemingly over the top bits just add credence to the characters who are also based in reality but might seem fake. Football enthusiasts in Texas really are this fanatical and they are proud of it.
Although character development is a bit on the short side, Friday Night Lights knows what its target story is, and tackles it dead on. It doesn’t take much for a sports movie to interest someone who already follows the sport the film covers, but it takes a lot for any movie to impress me this much, let alone a sports flick. I expect I’ll return to Friday Night Lights again in the future.
The DVD release of Friday Night Lights does a pretty good job of following the movie’s concept – recognizing its audience and giving them what they want. With a football themed curser and menu, the DVD expands not only on the film, but also on the true story behind the film – something many other fact-based films could learn from for their DVD releases.
The highlight of the disc is a documentary about the real 1988 Permian Panthers. As the documentary shows interviews with the cast, the filmmaker, and the real former football players, you get a sense of just how accurate this movie is. Footage is shown from the actual 1988 season, proving that the larger than life stadium and story isn’t that much of a stretch. You get a real feel for what it was like for these people to live through these expectations – the stress it put on 17-year-old boys, and just how serious these people take this sport. Showing the truth behind the story just adds that much more strength to the movie, and I know I’m not the only DVD critic who wishes this sort of thing was included more frequently.
There are several “action packed deleted scenes”, which really aren’t packed with much of anything. Most of them are expanded versions of scenes already in the movie, scenes for the most part which are dramatic in nature. What really kills the deleted scenes however, is the total lack of score through most of them. Since the film is composed of a lot of montages, the Explosions in the Sky soundtrack helps build the pace of the film and make the montages feel right. Without that music, the montages are just a bunch of fast cut scenes that look pretty bad.
For reasons unknown, there is an introduction to one scene by Peter Berg. It’s a scene that was a reshoot (actually the scene was added in after the film was completed, so it’s less of a “reshoot” as a “shoot”) and Berg explains the reason for the scene. The thing is, he explains the reason for the scene in the commentary track as well, so there’s really no reason to advertise this scene being added in. Oh, and that commentary track? It’s made up of Berg and H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger who not only wrote the original novel, but is also Berg’s cousin (convenient). It’s actually a very good commentary, balanced between the true story of the Panthers, and the making of the film. Berg points out stuff you might not have noticed, like how subtly the film is set in the ‘80s, allowing them to make use of ‘80s music and styles, but how hard they worked to keep it from being over the top or cliché.
The one bonus feature on the disc I was a bit disappointed to see was a short featurette focused on Tim McGraw’s role in the film. The country music star has a sizable role, but does extremely well as an actor, remaining pretty much unnoticed by me through most of the film. I thought they did a very good job not focusing on the fact that they had this country star in the film, so to add a featurette about it on the DVD kind of ruins that. Still, it’s nice to hear McGraw admit that while he enjoyed working on the film, he has no aspirations to give up his day job for a life of acting. Smart move! Any other musicians-turned-thespians want to learn from this?
Finally the “Player Cam” gives a behind the scenes look at the training camp the actors had to undergo, from the actor’s point of view. It’s one of those featurettes I’m sure sport enthusiasts will love, although I didn’t have much use for it. Elsewhere there is a brief biography/filmography for the cast, although most of them are fairly fresh to the world of acting, which is part of why they work so well in this movie.
Friday Night Lights is a fun, well-told story. It may not be as inspirational as other football movies, trading a lot of peppy speeches (although it does have its fair share of those) for the feeling of stress and tension football creates in these young men’s lives. The DVD makes a smart move of focusing on the film and the original story, with just enough football oriented menus and extras to make a fan happy. For me, I’ll keep enjoying the movie although I think that’s the closest I’ll get to Texas football.