starring Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Lucas Black
screenplay by David Aaron Cohen and Peter Berg, based on the book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger
directed by Peter Berg
by Walter Chaw Turning the microscope on the reptile hearts and minds of small-town sports culture, Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights is so alive with seething energy and meanness that it emerges as one of the better sports films on the short list of good sports films. It's what the Omaha Beach sequence in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is to Oliver Stone's Platoon: an evolution by way of devolution that erases the veneer, such as there is, prettifying violent confrontation, becoming in the process the unadorned engine to which Stone's ultimately featherweight Any Given Sunday aspired. It finds Lucas Black (as star quarterback Mike Winchell) reunited with Sling Blade co-star Billy Bob Thornton (playing his coach, Gary Gaines), with the mental disability roles reversed ("There's something wrong with my head," Winchell complains) but the peek under the Rockwell covers at insular, provincial psychosis transplanted intact. Friday Night Lights is a work of sociology, a film that not only understands the all-American obsession with packaged violence and the cult of machismo, but is also a clearer barometer of the kind of sublimation of fear and loathing in these United States than any gross of pre-election political documentaries. Our country's in trouble because these brutal idiots can vote--and there are more of them than there are the rest of us.
Gaines and Winchell lead Odessa Permian's powerhouse West Texas high school football team, annually putting themselves through the unimaginable crucible of small-town scrutiny and brutal conflict to allow the economically depressed, chemically dependent residents of Odessa a moment's respite from the banal thumbscrews of their everyday. Stores close on game day, housewives urge Coach Gaines to "put that big nigger in on defense!" Perqs (girls, food, adoration) and kickbacks await the conquering victors; dire threats, slow drive-bys, and a dozen "for sale" signs surreptitiously planted in the coach's yard are the consolation prizes. It's evil encapsulated in the frenzy around a child's game played by children. A butter-fingered son (Garrett Hedlund) of Everybody's Now-Drunk All-American (Tim McGraw, paralleling fellow country singer Dwight Yoakam's villainous role in Sling Blade) forms the emotional centre of the picture: a troubled ball of split allegiances and an ultimately daring look at how a father can emotionally batter a son and remain the most important thing in his life. Winchell's strange relationship with his emotionally shattered mother (Connie Cooper) is tragically underdeveloped by comparison; less successful, too, is the story of star running back Boobie Myles (Derek Luke), which preaches the tired sports platitude of doing the wise thing by not putting all your eggs in one basket.
Despite a passel of sports clichés (unavoidable, perhaps, in what gradually morphs into underdog uplift), Friday Night Lights succeeds on its topicality, the strength of its performances, and an agile, anxious job behind the camera by Berg. I'm a fan of Berg's--a big one of the anarchic, ugly Very Bad Things, a grudging one of The Rundown. His adrenalized style is the epitome of ephemeral, tabloid pop, and Friday Night Lights feels like the kind of periodical designed to attract a commuter's attention at a hundred paces. Heir to the testosterone cinema of Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, Berg's films also find a kind of poetry in opposition, with Friday Night Lights' establishing shots of Texas's huge, glowering big sky country and insensate oil derricks pumping in silhouette set against the mayfly quickening of young men frozen for an instant that is, for many of them, meant to last a lifetime.
Like Fuller again, Berg tackles the issue of race in the United States not as a liberal platform, but as the vile bedrock of human dementia. (Recall if you will the black man in the asylum of Fuller's Shock Corridor who believes himself to be the Grand Wizard of the KKK.) An Asian hooker is murdered in Very Bad Things, while in The Rundown a discussion of Muhammad Ali's Rumble in the Jungle is the Rosetta Stone of cross-cultural understanding. In Friday Night Lights, there's the aforementioned "nigger" line followed by a final confrontation with a behemoth team from the other side of the state that is physically superior and entirely African-American. As before, Berg's treatment of hot-button issues is frank and unapologetic while stopping short of exploitive. His stereotypes mean something, offering as Berg does examples of the contrary and the baseline to offset easy categorization and facile narrative drive. (As to questions of whether Friday Night Lights exaggerates state racism, I thought of the dragging death of James Byrd in the tiny Texas burg of Jasper that took place ten years after the events of this film.) Berg doesn't use race as a crutch, he wields it like a weapon--it becomes an uncomfortable mirror on the notions that we champion that are false, in addition to the ones that we hide that might be true.
Friday Night Lights is tense and entertaining, particularly for the lifelong football fan (one of my earliest memories involves Haven Moses catching a touchdown against the Raiders at the 1977 AFC Championship Game), for whom it's something like a revelation. The picture spends its first half establishing the madhouse and drawing lines under the inmates, interns, and entertainment before proceeding into hand-held, battlefield-evocative game footage that carries with it the weight and consequences of all that preceded it. It's a machine in what it does, a model of the feel-if-not-the-details school of adaptation (the script was adapted from the non-fiction book by Berg's cousin, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Buzz Bissinger), and as a survey of the anti-intellectualism and rage at the heart of the heartland, it burns with intelligence and energy.
by Bill Chambers Universal releases Friday Night Lights on DVD in competing widescreen and fullscreen editions, the former containing a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of stupendous clarity and voluptuous contrast. (If not for intermittent banding artifacts, the video presentation would have easily scored an A+ grade.) Owing to a docile LFE channel, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is comparatively lame, although it's no minor consolation that the music, dialogue, and effects are crisply reproduced and adroitly balanced. On another track, director Peter Berg joins Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger for an informative feature-length commentary that markedly improves on Berg's session with The Rock in honour of The Rundown. Berg does most of the talking at Bissinger's urging, although the latter lets loose a monologue's worth of invective over "dimwitted" critics with the gall to suggest that the film is inferior to his book. In a passage no doubt left untouched for irony's sake (remembering that Bissinger is a sports columnist by trade), the two decide that the Red Sox haven't a hope in Hell of winning the 2004 World Series.
Other bonus material includes a 22-minute block of "Action-Packed Deleted Scenes." Last I checked, flipping someone the bird didn't qualify as high-octane excitement, but there are some good character beats here, in particular a house call paid to Coach Gaines by L.V. (Grover Coulson), who asks Gaines if he's having as much trouble sleeping after what they did to Boobie. As these elisions are tendered without context or rationale, one can only presume they were cut to keep the running time under two hours; sadly, this rummage through the trim-bin reveals that Gaines's wife (the lovely Connie Britton) would be no less marginalized in a longer version of the film. In the bit-hogging "Peter Berg Discusses a Scene in the Movie" (1 mins.), Berg explains that the Buddy Burgers set-piece (which automatically cues up at the end of Berg's spiel) was a "reshoot-slash-new scene" to decelerate the pace of the first act--just as he does on the yakker during said sequence. The equally disposable "PlayerCam" (4 mins.) gets momentarily ugly when a redneck coach makes obnoxious electric razor noises around an African-American actor about to have his beloved afro sheared off, though Lucas Black saves the day by impersonating Karl Childers from Sling Blade, thus upholding a bizarre tradition of DVD titles featuring Billy Bob Thornton.
"Tim McGraw: Off the Stage" (6 mins.) catches up with the country star, who says that performing in concert is more satisfying than movie acting because of the "instant feedback," and chillingly confesses he could relate to the abusive character he plays in Friday Night Lights. Of course, Berg took a lot of dramatic license with said character, and the real Don Billingsley sets the record straight regarding his father's bullying in the best and last featurette, Jim Bacon's "The Story of the 1988 Permian Panthers" (24 mins.). Ending with a reunion between Billingsley, Mike Winchell, Boobie Miles, and Brian Chavez (in comparison to whom Jay Hernandez looks like Don Knotts), the piece complements Friday Night Lights nicely, although Gaines, glimpsed only in footage of the infamous coin toss that decided Permian's entrance into the 1988 state finals, is transparently short-changed by the focus on the fab four. Cast and filmmaker biographies/filmographies (haven't seen those in a while!) plus pre-menu commercials for Ray, The Motorcycle Diaries, "Miami Vice" The Complete First Season, and "Las Vegas" The Complete First Season round out the platter. (There's a listing for ROM content, but my computer didn't detect any of it.) A de rigueur shiny cardboard sleeve slips over the keepcase. Originally published: February 15, 2005.