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Friday Night Formula

 

Friday Night Lights

Peter Berg, USA, 2004

Rating: 2.8

 

 

Posted: October 10, 2004

By Laurence Station

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 depressed hometown.

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 credibility.

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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