It's odd to think that football is a truly American sport. No other country has the passion or the love for this game that we do. Most don't even play it. "Friday Night Lights" is a chronicle of sorts of how far that passion can go and how scary it can become.
Odessa Texas is obsessive when it comes to high school football. Their coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thorton), is paid more than the principle, more money goes to the stadium than the school, and the players are intense pressure every season. This is their story from 1988, based off the best selling book by H.G. Bissinger.
It's not important that this is a football movie. Ignore that for a moment. Pay attention to how brilliantly these characters develop. Through simple and real conversation, each of the characters this movie will focus on are brought to life early. You know their stories, what they have been through, and what they plan to do. That leaves plenty of time for that obligatory final game, and plenty of time for the audience to care about those players.
Peter Berg directs with a semi-documentary feel, one that adds greatly to the proceedings. Dialogue is not the only thing moving these characters along. Great visual moments not only add depth, but should stick with you for some time to come.
Everything is held together by great performances, including a rather surprising one from country music star Tim McGraw. Playing a former star athlete turned drunken father, he wants so badly for his former glory to pass down to his son. He owns this role. Billy Bob Thorton does a fine job as the coach and it's refreshing to see a sports movie that doesn't really focus on the team's centerpiece.
A few of the usual clichÈs are unfortunately present, though some are necessary and unavoidable to keep the movie in line with the real story. Completely ridiculous are the big hits. It seems like every time a player gets tackled, it's an absolutely brutal shot that would likely end their careers right then and there. It grows tiring after a while and loses impact later in the film when it would (and should) matter the most.
At two hours, "Friday Night Lights" should feel overly long and dragged out. It's not. Whether or not this is one of the greatest sports stories ever told is debatable (these people are simply nuts). Not debatable is whether or not this is a sports movie that will go down as a classic. It will, and it deserves that honor. Thankfully, that has little to do with football, and everything to do with the well-crafted characters. (***** out of *****)
Universal has provided the service of keeping the film digitally preserved in a fantastic fashion. This is the type of transfer that makes you wonder why High Definition DVD is coming down the pipe so soon. Barring some minor grain (which could be intentional) during a few of the darker scenes, this is a perfect picture. The clarity is nothing short of remarkable. Compression artifacts are nowhere to be seen at any point in the film while the black levels create some great contrast throughout. (*****)
Disappointing is the rather mundane and lifeless audio track. While each of those ridiculous hits is really felt via the LFE channel, the immersion level is, sadly, quite low. You never get that "in the stadium" feel like you should. On the lower end, a few of the conversations can be difficult to hear, spoken at level that's well below what can be considered whispering. Sports movies should sound far better in 5.1 than this. (***)
Not a packed special edition, this single disc DVD does house some nice features along with a few that seem rather pointless. Oddly, a commentary track from the director and the books author is included, but it's not listed on the DVD case itself. Instead, they have chosen to show off the "action-packed deleted scenes." Even stranger, there's little to no action included in them. There are a few scenes that probably could have worked including some of the racial tension built around the state final. These scenes must be watched all together, there's no picking and choosing.
"Tim McGraw: Off the Stage" is basically four minutes of the actors praising the star and himself discussing the character. Peter Berg Discusses a Scene" is a totally useless interview of sorts where the director discusses a scene he is about to shoot to slow down the opening the moments. Considering it lasts all of a minute, there's not much here to gain. "Player Cam" is six minutes of footage shot during the films training period. It's fun to watch even if it doesn't really teach you anything about the making of the film.
Stealing the show is the fairly well produced "Story of the 1988 Permian Panthers," a 22-minute feature that doesn't just focus on the actors, but the real stars. Most of the main characters are interviewed in present day to discuss the film and what they have done since. Interspersed is real game footage, interviews, and news coverage. It's a great addition to the movie and should be viewed when the movie is over. (****)
It will take some time to finally settle in, but "Friday Night Lights" definitely deserves some real recognition. It's a fantastic achievement. Expect to see it entering in some "all-time sports movie" lists soon enough.