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Friday Night Lights Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 March 2007

ImageIn the name of honesty—I don’t like sports. I don’t like to watch them on TV, I don’t like to see them in person, and I don’t like to participate in them. This may be because, as a fat nerd, I was always chosen last, but be that as it may, I don’t like sports. But I often like sports movies, which are very rarely about the sport in question, and instead about the people who are involved. “Friday Night Lights” goes a step further, and in so doing, becomes a unique sports movie, and one of the best of the last 20 years.

It’s not about a sports figure, but about how a town and its inhabitants live, even exist, through their high school football team. Evidently, high school football is enormously important in west Texas, even more so than in other areas of the U.S. Writer H.G. Bissinger spent a football season in Odessa, Texas, covering the team from the town’s Permian High School. The town is so devoted to their football teams that they readily voted in a bill that led to the construction of one of the largest high school stadiums in the country. Bissinger wrote a detailed, sympathetic book, “Friday Night Lights,” that became a best seller, and 14 years after it was made, a surprisingly successful movie.

Peter Berg a sometime director, more often actor (and by coincidence, Bissinger’s cousin), took great care with the film. He adopted a documentary approach, shooting largely with a hand-held camera, and employing creative editing techniques, which on the commentary track, Berg credits to Colby Parker, Jr. He follows several people, primarily successful, dedicated coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), and players Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez) and James “Boobie” Miles (Derek Luke), the star of the team. Berg also focuses on Charles Billingsley (country singing star Tim McGraw) and L.V. (Grover Coulson), the loving uncle Boobie lives with. There isn’t really a story, but instead an interlocked series of events, beginning with the first day of football practice, and ending just after the big championship game, which is held in Houston’s Astrodome.

There’s nothing unusual about any of these kids, or about Coach Gaines, either, but they become specific, personalized characters, thanks to Berg’s sensitive direction and the detailed, intelligent script he cowrote with David Aaron Cohen. Mike’s father Charlie was a football star himself, but his life has gone badly since then; he drinks too much, and is angrily overcritical of Mike. Don’s main ally is his mother (Connie Cooper), but he keeps his life off the field largely a secret—and in real life, did the same with Billingsley. Boobie is a cocky player, annoying and overbearing—and just as good as he thinks he is. So good that Gaines makes an error—instead of focusing on the team AS a team, he has viewed them as support for Boobie Miles. The Permian Panthers rise or fall with Boobie—and then, early in the season, he does fall, seriously injuring a leg. The focus of the movie, and of Gaines, has to change.

Berg treats the games as seriously as possible; these young actors are really getting knocked around out there on the nighttime field of Odessa. (Just as the title suggests, most of the movie was shot at night.) It’s one of the roughest and most realistic football movies ever made.

This is a real gem in HD DVD’s crown. Usually movies with a lot of night scenes are not especially enhanced by being seen in high definition; yes, there is more detail in the darkness but, well, it’s DARK detail. Here, the football fields are brightly illuminated, and there are lots of scenes in the locker rooms. The stadiums are packed with electrified crowds, and we seem to be able to see each and every person in the stands (except at the Astrodome, which is just too vast). The players sweat and bleed, and we see every drop of sweat, every line in Gaines’ frowning face.

The cast is excellent. Billy Bob Thornton is almost always excellent, and he is here, very realistic and believable as the hard-working, deep-thinking coach. He’s reunited here with his “Sling Blade” costar, Lucas Black, who has himself matured into a solid actor. Derek Luke is particularly good as the ill-fated Boobie. He’s brave and tough as he says goodbye to his teammates AS teammates for the last time, then breaks down in tears in the privacy of his uncle’s car. The extras include interview segments with the real Boobie Niles—and even now, he seems slightly tragic, a bit of a lost soul.

The extras are a mixed lot. As usual, it’s pretty clear why deleted scenes were removed—though there is a very nice, brief scene in which Gaines walks through the darkened high school corridors with a janitor, who gives supportive advice to the silent, attentive coach. It’s a perfect illustration of one of the main ideas of book and movie: that the entire town is entirely devoted to their football team. (Even too much so at times, as we see Gaines have to deal with overenthusiastic, even threatening, townsfolk.)

The short segment of Peter Berg discussing an additional scene shot after the film was otherwise completed (the early scene at the hamburger stand) is pointless, unlike most of the material here. Such as “Ryan’s Player Cam.” Ryan Jacobs, whose role as a Panther is so small he’s not even given a character name, had a camcorder on set with him; his footage has been edited together with great style and humor, and it’s nice and short.

“Tim McGraw: Off the Stage” is about average for a DVD extra; it’s a peculiarly-edited (color and black and white) segment about how and why the singing star became an actor. “Gridiron Grabs” is a making-of documentary dealing with the process of casting the Panthers for the movie. Again, this is about average. And again, so is “Behind the Lights,” a standard studio-making of, the kind almost every feature gets these days.

But “Friday Night Lights: The Story of the 1988 Permian Panthers” is well above average. It features interviews not only with the cast, but with the real-life people they’re playing. It’s intelligent and insightful, and shows clearly how carefully the feature was cast—many of the actors strongly resemble the real people they’re playing. But there’s an odd omission: virtually nothing is said about Coach Gaines, there’s no shot of him anywhere in any of this extra material, nor, unlike for the other major characters, is there a “where are they today” title card explaining what Gaines did AFTER 1988. It’s an omission so striking that one wonders if lawyers were involved.

The DVD was assembled too early for there to be a mention of the “Friday Night Lights” TV series (for which Peter Berg directed the pilot/first episode).
The commentary track involves the cousins Peter Berg and “Buzz” Bissinger; their familiarity helps on some levels, but also leads to some slightly annoying joking, and a tendency for both of them to fall silent for some time.

Overall, this is an outstanding movie, and an outstanding DVD, particularly effective in high definition.

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