The latest football story to be told on the big screen, Friday Night Lights pounds, slams and drills its way to the end zone, but the final score falls short of "the greatest sports story ever told."
Billy Bob Thornton stars as the coach of the 1988 Permian Panthers out of the economically-challenged Odessa, Texas, a real-life team that was expected to go undefeated to state, but suffered a major setback when its star player (Derek Luke) tore his ACL in the first game of the season. Odessa, which like many southern towns was apparently obsessed with its high school team, watched their hopes crumble, but despite hardships the team made it to the state championship anyway.
The truth of the matter is that Friday Night Lights is no different than any other football movie that has been told. The high school teammates all seem to have their fair share of drama in their lives (I sure as hell don't remember being that dramatic in high school), they have their ups-and-downs during the games, and they finish off their season in the big state championship, facing off against a much larger and nastier team. Still, sports movies do not have to be original - they just have to be entertaining - and Friday Night Lights never really sets itself apart from others in the genre.
Director Peter Berg does a good job from his chair; the film is very gritty, fluid and never boring. Once the football games start, the audience feels every hit and blow that the players suffer through - and wow, there are a lot of them. Again, I don't remember there even being a fraction of the heavy hits that appear in the movie, but they make for good entertainment. Off the field, however, Berg's directing style is inconsistent. His fast editing style and shaky camera makes the movie seem to move faster, but something is lost in the process. At times, especially in the first half hour, there were times when I didn't even know what was happening as the camera was jerking around so much, but more importantly, by the end of the movie, I felt as though I never really knew any of the characters.
And here is the crucial problem with Friday Night Lights. The movie is entertaining and the football games are incredible, but the film only takes a look at a few of the dozens of characters on the team and really doesn't do that great of job at portraying them. We have Boobie Miles (Luke), who sits on the sidelines the entire time; his character is fairly interesting but ultimately not involved in the final plays of the game. There's Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), who perhaps is the most important of all of the characters, but is never truly developed. Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) is given the most drama (his dad's a demanding alcoholic), but also is never developed to his potential. And as for Thornton, who plays Coach Gary Gaines, he does a good job, although I must say that coaches are about the same in every sports movie.
SPOILER ALERT. The problem is that Berg never explores the characters in a way that I am quite certain Buzz Bissinger did in his novel, on which this movie is based. Books always explain characters better and allow us to become more connected to them. In this movie, the characters are just a bunch of high school kids to whom most of us can't relate, and so when they lose in the final seconds of the state championship, the movie tanks. The point of the movie is that we are supposed to feel for the characters so much that when they lose, we're supposed to be moved by their valiant effort. In reality, we care more about the game than the characters, so the ending is just disappointing, not sad. Sports movies where the team loses in the end rarely work, and Friday Night Lights is no exception.
It is also a bit strange that the movie races through the playoffs so quickly after the movie focuses so intensely on the problems the team has earlier in the season. The movie treats the playoffs as if they are no big deal.
Friday Night Lights is a good story to be told, but it was probably better as a novel than as a big screen picture. The movie is well-done for the most part and overall fairly effective, but the facts of the 1988 season make it difficult to fully enjoy.
DVD ReviewNow available on DVD, "Friday Night Lights" is sure to be a top-seller in the coming weeks, and thankfully, the DVD is worth it. Though the deleted scenes were rightfully cut from the movie (hence not very interesting to watch), the other special features are pretty interesting. If you're looking for humor, "Player Cam" should be your first stop, as it takes you behind the scenes. There's no real purpose for this featurette other than to show the cast members out of character, but it's pretty funny and easily the most entertaining of the package. "The Story of the 1988 Permian Panthers" is, of course, a featurette that looks at the real team. This interesting and fairly long segment includes interviews with the real players of the season and some footage. It perhaps uses a few too many clips from the movie (and interviews with the cast members), but there still is enough honest footage to make it more than just a promotional feature. One segment that leaves little to be desired for is "Peter Berg Discusses a Scene," which basically involves Berg stuttering an introduction to a scene. Once the scene starts, that's the last we hear or see of the director. Utterly pointless. Last but not least is "Tim McGraw: Off the Stage," which looks at his decision to shed the pretty boy singer and take on the least-likable character of the movie. The featurette is mildly interesting, but nothing special.
All in all, the special features make the DVD well worth the ride, especially if you enjoyed the movie as well. Surprisingly, the director's commentary is not mentioned on the back of the box, but there is one included. Enjoy!
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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