Combustible Celluloid

Friday Night Lights (2004)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Gridiron Gravitas Defeated

By Rob Blackwelder, SPLICEDwire

Buy Friday Night Lights on DVD.

Friday Night Lights takes place in a dismal West Texas suburb where society revolves entirely around high school football and the "winning is everything" philosophy is considered an All-American value.

Director Peter Berg (The Rundown) vividly captures life here beginning with the opening shot -- an aerial view of sagebrush, oil pumps and dust rising to a hazy horizon as a pickup barrels down a dirt road, an AM radio sport show blaring out its windows with boorish, pejorative fans calling in for a round of Monday morning quarterbacking.

But the film seems to endorse the hardcore sports-junkie attitude that obstinately forgives arrogance, misogyny, substance abuse, narrow-mindedness and bullying in any star athlete just as long as he produces results on the field. The movie's principles are seriously out of whack, even as it angles toward a Big Life Lesson about learning to live with falling short of greatness.

Berg -- who also adapted the script from H.G. Bissinger's non-fiction book about the 1988 Permian High Panthers of Odessa, Texas -- actually expects us to feel sorry for a self-important, overbearing NFL-bound running back (with no redeeming qualities) when an injury ends his potential career and he doesn't have a fallback plan. We're also supposed to sympathize with the abusive, alcoholic dad of the team's weakest player once we learn he feels bad about being a washed-up ballplayer living vicariously through his son.

I suppose it's to the credit of Friday Night Lights that no attempt is made to whitewash any of this -- or the fact that because of the pressure they're under, the kids find little joy in playing the game and tend to blow off steam with beer bongs and easy sex. But that doesn't make these people any more pleasant to be around for two punishing hours -- which I suppose is also a credit to the film's realism. If the acting weren't so good, I probably wouldn't have felt genuine animosity toward almost every character on the screen.

The only one who seems to have everything in perspective is the coach, played by a perfectly cast Billy Bob Thornton. A stoic, modest, contemplative man, he seems to be the only person in Odessa who considers his actions and weighs the consequences (and sometimes still makes wrong choices) -- whether it's about giving each of his players what he thinks they need to succeed (encourage, beratement, empathy) or suffering the never-ending layman advice and intimidation of parents and townspeople who expect from him nothing less than a state championship.

A larger problem is the football scenes themselves, in which the team's fortunes and skills seem to change arbitrarily. The games are dynamically filmed and pumping with adrenaline, but they lack credibility as players on both teams are obviously on a script and big plays are stage-managed to a ridiculous degree.

Atmospherically, Friday Night Lights is a triumph for providing such a strong sense of the culture and tension, the heat and the dust on one's skin, and the lack of options faced by these ballplayers whose only ticket to a better life may be a football scholarship. But its failures on the gridiron and its lack of characters worth caring about torpedo all that cinematic acumen.

DVD Details: Extras on Universal/Imagine's new DVD include a featurette on country music star Tim McGraw and his transition to the big screen, a "Player Cam," which details the offscreen relationships between actors and athletes, and a featurette on the real story of the 1988 Permian Panthers.

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund, Jay Hernandez, Lucas Black, Lee Thompson Young, Connie Britton, Tim McGraw, Lee Jackson, Josh Berry, Paul Wright, Dennis Hill, Kevin Page, Morgan Farris
Written by: Peter Berg, David Aaron Cohen, based on a book by H.G. Bissinger
Directed by: Peter Berg
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic issues, sexual content, language, some teen drinking and rough sports action
Running Time: 117 mintues
Date: October 8, 2004

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