Peter Berg, USA, 2004
Posted: October 10,
Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, H.G. Bissinger's
acclaimed book recounting the Permian Panthers' 1988 football season, is
less about high school athletics and more concerned with the town of Odessa,
Texas suffering through post-'70s oil-bust blues. As such, it shows the
tremendous pressure placed on a group of 17-year-olds who were expected to
bring home nothing less than the state championship for their economically
Peter Berg's adaptation of Friday Night Lights inverts this idea:
Football is everything, and the sad state of Odessa is barely touched upon.
When the game's on, all of the shops in town are closed. Whenever the
players are out, townspeople remind them how important it is to sustain the
impossibly high expectations prior Permian State Champs have fostered over
the decades. The overly simplified idea here is that football is the ticket
out of Odessa, and you don't want to become one of those people who walk
around town years after the fact, wearing a championship ring and
vicariously trying to relive the greatest period of your life through the
latest generation of ballplayers.
Berg's camera style indicates he's aiming for authenticity -- all quick cut
camera action and detached, fly-on-the-wall angles. But this isn't some MTV
Real World: Odessa program. And the pseudo-documentary approach only
serves to distance us from the characters. Case in point: third-year Head
Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton). He's a man under enormous pressure
from boosters and fans, but, aside from exterior angst painted across his
face, he never expresses a full range of emotions.
Berg's camera is invasive, not intimate. We're always aware of the fact
that we're invading the world of the coach and his players, and there's
never a comfortable dimension between what we see and what the characters
are truly feeling. Such stone-faced, suck-it-up determination might work
wonders on the gridiron, but it severely impedes any connection between the
audience and the kids they're meant to root for.
The most incongruous aspect of Friday Night Lights, however, is its
cinema verité conceit and its trite big run to the championship-game payoff.
We even get a "Win one for the Gipper" quip from Coach Gaines, in respect to
Panthers' injured star back, at halftime of the climactic showdown with the
bigger, stronger, faster Dallas squad. Toss in the fact that this
Holly-washed version has the match played in the Houston Astrodome (as
opposed to the less glamorous Memorial Stadium in Austin) and upgrades it
for all the marbles rather than the semi-final contest it actually was (and
dramatically inflates the final score, to boot), and Berg's attempt at
crafting an "authentic" look at high school football fumbles any chance at
There are some nice elements here, however. Billy Bob Thornton makes a
believable coach; he can effectively make those inspirational locker room
speeches without resorting to shouting or overacting (his bit about what
being "perfect" means is a highlight). Country music superstar Tim McGraw's
performance as a belligerent father who expects his son to excel no matter
the damage it causes to their relationship -- he's the one character who
truly breaks through Berg's impersonal style. The film doesn't sugarcoat
just how violent the sport of football truly is -- shots of blood, broken
bones and crushing tackles make you wonder why most of these kids (who'll
never even go on to college ball, let alone the pros) would subject
themselves to such punishment.
Friday Night Lights draws up a game plan that excludes the more
fascinating insights of its source material in favor of the trite,
commercialized "Road to the Title Game" formula. The problem is, the events
this movie is based on actually happened (and not that long ago), and it's a
disservice to the town of Odessa and the Permian Panthers that, warts and
all, the full story was not better, and more faithfully, dramatized.
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