High school football has been explored twice in recent years, but both times failed to capture the nature of the sport. Remember the Titans was slightly above-average, but used football as a means towards its true theme -- tearing down racial barriers. Varsity Blues, on the other hand, was a mess that failed to capture humanity, much less high school football. The intent of Friday Night Lights, based on the bestselling book by Buzz Bissinger, was to capture the sport, but also the impact it has on the small Texan town of Odessa.
The Panthers of Permian High School, otherwise known as the Mojo, are always among the toughest contenders in Texas High School football. With many state championships behind them, a community of enthusiastic fans, a proven head coach, and a hotshot running back, most feel that the state championship is theirs to lose. Their momentum is put in jeopardy when their ticket, running back Booby Miles, gets injured. Left without much of a backup plan, the Panthers try to pull together and forge a winning season out of their misfortune. Hopefully, with any luck, they'll manage to pull together and make it to state, but most have already counted them out.
This is the third feature for actor-turned-director Peter Berg. Just off his surprising success in The Rundown, he has quickly established himself as one of the next batch of "up and comers". Friday Night Lights is a new direction for Berg as a director. In addition to The Rundown, he had previously directed Very Bad Things, an unpleasantly intense drama about a night gone horribly wrong. Very Bad Things didn't do too well, and could have easily buried other directors that weren't already known in Hollywood as Berg is. He got his second chance with last year's The Rundown, a typical action film starring The Rock. Unlike Very Bad Things, The Rundown became a modest hit on video and showed that Berg had some versatility with material.
With Friday Night Lights, the influence of director Michael Mann is evident. It's probably no coincidence that Berg acted in this year's Mann film, Collateral. He captures the beauty of West Texas just like Mann has done with Los Angeles in Heat and Collateral. His landscape shots show the emptiness and the loneliness of the small town, so at a glance the viewer might understand the football obsession. He mixes his visuals creatively with the highly original score composed by Austin post-rock band, Explosions in the Sky. He cuts from landscape to landscape, from image to image, and intertwines the images with the slow musical buildup. Explosions may have a contemporary, indie-rock sound, but their Texas roots do reveal themselves within the music. This also contributes to the small-town feel of the picture. I have to give Berg some credit for making such a bold, yet appropriate music choice for his movie.
Friday Night Lights isn't just a movie about young people playing football, but mostly of a town and their obsession with the sport. The real town of Odessa is renowned for its football co-dependency. Berg does several things to show the town's involvement, such as placing a gigantic Mojo sign at the house of each athlete, complete with last name and jersey number. Most of the town's involvement in the games, however, is delivered by using the characters themselves and their personal situations. Charles Billingsley (Tim McGraw) shows his personal obsession with the game by ridiculing his son Don (Garrett Hedlund) for constantly fumbling the ball. He even goes so far as to place duct tape around the boy's hands. At a weaker moment, Billingsley tells his son that he gets frustrated because it is important to him that his son have a moment of glory. In Billingsley's eyes, winning state when he was a child was his life's proudest moment and everything has been downhill since. Like many in the town, he projects his obsession onto his son. In this respect, Berg captures the essence and the importance of the sport, contrasted with the emptiness in the typical Odessan's life.
What sets Friday Night Lights from most sports films is its focus on character. By seeing the player's lives off the field and what motivates them, we become invested in them. We see their ambition, their drive, and their plight, which causes us to root for them. We want them to succeed. Not only does this make the movie seem more honest and realistic, but this investment pays dividends during the sports scenes.
Another way Friday Night Lights succeeds is by avoiding stereotypes. The most notable example of this is with Billy Bob Thornton's portrayal of Coach Gary Gaines. You would expect Thornton to play the stereotypical, loud, overbearing southern coach. Thornton's understated and unintrusive performance is a better fit to the world of Odessa, TX. He is an advocate for his players and wants them to do well, even if his ultimate goal and job is to win football games. Like his players. he feels plenty of pressure from the town around him. He is constantly second guessed on the local talk radio show and reminded that failure to win state could cost him his job. His character is much more stoic than the stereotypical coach, yet he finds a way to keep himself composed and focus on the task at hand.
The surprise performance here is that of country singer Tim McGraw, who plays the already mentioned father trying to project his prior glory onto his son. The fact that McGraw has a larger emotional spectrum helps him to stand out, but he doesn't fail to adequately deliver the emotion. He ends up stealing most of his scenes because he conveys the emotion with such honesty, making him easily the most convincing character of them all.
Everything falls together for Friday Night Lights, causing it to be a far more moving film than one might expect. Some solid performances, excellent editing, and a daring music choice makes it stand out compared towards stereotypical sports dramas.
© Aaron West, 7th November, 2004
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