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FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw
Director: Peter Berg
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround, Spanish Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 118 Minutes
Release Date: January 18, 2005

“I want you to take a moment, and I want you to look each other in the eyes. I want you to put each other in your hearts forever because forever is about to happen here in just a few minutes.”

Film ****

In 1988, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas were facing some pretty incredible odds. They’re determination to make it all the way to the state championship resulted in one of the most inspiring sports stories ever told. That story became a renowned book, and Friday Night Lights, in addition to being high on my list of the best films of 2004, has officially earned its spot amongst the greatest sports movies ever made.

Although the film will strike fans of the game very personally, I seriously feel that you do not have to be a die hard lover of football in order to get involved in the dramatic story at hand. The story tells of the Odessa-Permian Panthers, and a crucial 1988 football season that presented some challenging obstacles for the members of the team, especially the outgoing seniors of the team who are looking for nothing more than to get out of Odessa. The team bears a huge weight of responsibility for the town, since Odessa, like so many American towns, is obsessed with high school football.

The team has what it takes to make it, especially with cocky star player Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), whose shot at college and NFL glory is purely foreseeable. For quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), the desire to get out of Odessa is there, but he hesitates at the thought of leaving behind his sick mother. And for running back Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), the only pressure that exists is to measure up to his father, Charles (Tim McGraw), who was a star player twenty years ago, and is now a frequent alcoholic who bullies his son into becoming an even greater player than he was.

The coach of the team is Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton, in one of his most outstanding performances), who is pressured more than anyone to ensure an undefeated winning season. The pressure comes not just from members of the school board, but fellow citizens of Odessa, who demand that their home team go all the way to state. Gaines faces an array of comments and criticism along the way, but handles it in a calm and graceful manner.

Once the season gets underway, the team faces a nasty turn when Boobie suffers a major leg injury in the first game. It’s up to the rest of the team, who were always used to backing up the unstoppable Boobie, to provide the strengths the team will need in order to make it to state. With some setbacks along the way, the Panthers manage to make it farther than people anticipated without Boobie in tow.

For Boobie, though, the future that was promised to him seems to have been taken away. He receives an MRI, showing signs of a bad ligament and indicating that he may not be able to play the game again anytime soon. A moment where Boobie breaks down to his uncle about his future being ruined is one that will have your emotions rocked.

There is an essential element that separates Friday Night Lights from the traditional sports movie, and it lies with how director Peter Berg has shot the movie. Along with his cinematographer, Tobias A. Schliessler, Berg has brought an unconventional approach to telling this story. The narrative has a near-documentary feel to it, and the result is a magnificently realized portrait of high school football. The filmmaking approach to the telling of this story is the factor that I responded to the most.

In addition, the film has been given a unique score of music. The indie rock band Explosions in the Sky has executed one of the most incredible and original music scores I’ve heard in any film. It’s a mellow flow of guitar oriented pieces which don’t sound like the kind of music you’d hear in a movie about football. The visual style, storytelling approach, and music score combine to make this a superb piece of filmmaking.

To sum it up, Friday Night Lights is both a rousing sports movie, full of raw emotion, in addition to being a stronger and entirely different type of sports movie. Peter Berg’s directing takes the material to a whole new level, and the performances by the entire cast, especially that of Thornton and country singer Tim McGraw in his acting debut, are top notch and totally effective. 

A piece of pure cinematic power, Friday Night Lights is sure to be noted as one of the greatest sports movies ever made, just as its story is already regarded as one of the greatest sports stories ever told.

BONUS TRIVIA: Director Peter Berg is cousin to Buzz Bissinger, who wrote the book “Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream”.

ADDED TRIVIA: Billy Bob Thornton and Lucas Black have acted alongside each other once before. They were in Sling Blade as Carl and young Frank.

Video ****

Having been blown away by the stunning cinematography and directing of the movie when I saw it in its theatrical run, I had a feeling that this would make an outstanding transfer to DVD, and I was right! Universal’s anamorphic presentation is without a doubt the first great looking video job of the new year, that I’ve seen at least. The images are magnificent to look at in their crisp and clear form, especially the football sequences. A grand job all the way!

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix delivers in all sections to make for a most outstanding sounding presentation. Sound is a big key factor of this movie. First off, there is the power of the mellow score by Explosions in the Sky, then there are the game sequences, which deliver the sound power that is expected…and more. Dialogue is extremely well delivered, and numerous set pieces, especially ones involving crowds, are superb high points, as well.

Features ***1/2

Universal delivers a good enough package of extras with this release. There’s a commentary track with Peter Berg and author Buzz Bissinger, as well as Berg’s explanation of a particular sequence, several deleted scenes, and three featurettes; “Tim McGraw: Off the Stage”, “Player Cam”, and “The Story of the 1988 Permian Panthers”.

Summary:

If you think Friday Night Lights is anything like a traditional high school sports movie, you’re in for a major surprise. The result is a more personal, more dramatically involving, and emotionally powerful sports movie, in addition to being a strong piece of filmmaking.

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