Friday Night Lights
Friday Night Lights (Director: Peter Berg)
Director Berg is still best known as Dr. Billy Kronk on the former "E.R." alternative, "Chicago Hope." However, he has begun to form quite a list of recognizable films. Last year's The Rundown was a pleasant surprise, and some people even like the dark comedy Very Bad Things (I'm not one). This time, he takes on the Pulitzer-prize winning non-fiction high school football book by Buzz Bissinger, which I haven't read but heard is fabulous.
It's Odessa, Texas in 1988 and the team is the Odessa-Permian Panthers. Billy Bob Thornton plays Coach Gary Gaines, his Sling Blade co-star Lucas Black plays quarterback Mike Winchell, and Derek Luke plays star running back Boobie Miles. A great amount of pressure is focused on this team to win the state championship, everyone in the town is saying how much they want to win, and there's even a radio show that sounds like national radio talking up the Panthers. The film does an excellent job providing that sense of pressure. We have one player, Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), who has trouble holding on to the ball and the conflict that arises with his former high school football star dad (country singer Tim McGraw, in a fabulous performance). We have Odessa fans wanting to fire Gaines after one loss, and when an improbable run to the state championship materializes, Odessa officials make it just short of clear that losing it would threaten his job.
Friday Night Lights definitely has that sense of Hoosiers, where a small-town team ends up playing a huge Goliath-like team in the championship in the Houston Astrodome. The hits come hard and you will find yourself wincing and cheering during the football scenes, which are realistic and never get to the exaggerated tone of Any Given Sunday. However, Peter Berg often does direct this film like Oliver Stone, with lots of quick camera moves and slick editing. It generally gives the film some sort of documentary feel.
Billy Bob Thornton is as good an actor as you're ever going to find, and he's a perfect coach, displaying the sort of intensity and calm of a natural leader. Lucas Black plays a quarterback much like Jason London's Randall "Pink" Floyd in Dazed and Confused: not sure he wants the pressure, not sure he wants to do this and get into the game like everyone around him, but loaded with talent. He's quite good. The possible breakout performance belongs to Derek Luke, who came onto the scene in Denzel Washington's directorial debut, Antwone Fisher. Boobie Miles is a perfect person for showcasing acting talent, as he's brash, funny, and emotional.
What this film may not cover very well are some controversies I've heard coming from the source material. There are a couple of racial slurs and some discussion, but I never got the sense of the racial divide that the book apparently covers thoroughly. I've read the Bissinger article in the Oct. 4 Sports Illustrated that is sort of a Friday Night Lights revisited, 15 years later, and he also mentions that Coach Gaines didn't like his portrayal--but I see nothing in the movie that would be considered negative (there is one scene where Billingsley and his father fight on the practice field, while Gaines sort of looks the other way). There isn't much of a sense of the athletics-over-academics to the point Bissinger apparently writes about--you do get the sense that football is more important, but not with the examples. You get a small taste that Boobie Miles was getting paid. These things don't make the film a lesser one, but it might offend fans of the book or those looking for a documentary.
This is the best sports film in a long time, and I think most people would enjoy it. It's an immersing experience, extremely fast-paced, and just a good night at the movies.