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Friday Night Lights was authored by H.G. Bissinger and was originally published in 1990. The book is set in Odessa, Texas and documents the story of a high school football team’s quest for the state championship. After earning a spot on several best seller lists, the book is regarded today as one of the greatest sport books ever written; in fact many coaches on collegiate Division I schools and on NFL teams require their players to read it for inspiration.  

Fourteen years later Peter Berg (cousin to the author of the book) has adapted the book into a film, starring Billy Bob Thornton as the coach of the Permian High Panthers. Released initially in October of 2004 the film enjoyed mild success at the box office during it’s two month run, and now is being released on DVD by Universal. The real question is, what separates Friday Night Lights from other inspirational sports stories? What about the Permian High Panthers of 1988 warrants both a book and a film?

Friday Night Lights
Film
Friday Night Lights opens in pre-season training camp for the Permian High Panthers, where the young teenage players are surrounded by members of the local press in addition to talent scouts from major universities. Two things are established in the opening sequence of the film, first and foremost that life in Odessa, Texas revolves around high school football. Adults and kids alike look to the players on the team as heros, giving them rock-star status in the town. Businesses close early for their games, and talk radio airwaves are filled with rambling about Panther Football. The second thing that is established is that Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) is the clear star of the team, and is destined for a star studded career in college and beyond in football. Coach Gary Gaines (played by Billy Bob Thornton, who most recently starred in films such as Bad Santa and Monster’s Ball) knows that Miles is his ticket to a state title; the rest of the team and town know this fact as well. When Miles goes down with an injury in the first game of the season, desperation sets in for the Panthers.

When the season of the Panthers appears to be in jeopardy, the town of Odessa quickly turns on the coach and players of Permian High. After a two game losing streak Coach Gains returns to his home to find that neighbours had put ‘for sale’ signs in his yard, encouraging his early departure from the area (an event that apparently did occur during the 1988 season). If it wasn’t bad enough for an adult to receive that kind of hazing from the town, the young players were constantly being reminded of the importance of a state championship. Former players of all ages would flaunt their rings to them, only adding more pressure to these student-athletes. Senior fullback Don Billingsley (played by Garrett Hedlund) was constantly being hazed by his father Charles (Tim McGraw) about the necessity of victory. His father, who is an alumni of Permian and obtained a state title in his tenure, goes to as far as duct taping a football to his sons hands after he commits a fumble in practice. It is the comradery of the team mates that allows them to take on the obstacles that the season brought, and allowed them to contend for the state title.

Director Peter Berg should be given credit for his work on the film. Friday Night Lights has a documentary-like style to it from start to finish, with no real main character to follow. Amidst that the movie was still never dull, and you always want to know what is going to happen in the next scene. His football sequences were absolutely fantastic and make the price of admission worthwhile. The graphic realism of the sequences is absolutely thrilling, feeling like a real football game more often than not.

Friday Night Lights
The acting throughout the film is generally very good, starting with the star Billy Bob Thornton. His character, like many of his players, feels the weight of the world on his shoulders to win a state championship. The quality of Thornton’s work is showcased particularly when we see the variety of emotions he goes through. For instance, when he learns that his star player is out for the season and then has to go give his team a pat on the back for winning a game, he takes us through that process with him, showing how a coach has to keep is own concerns behind doors while putting on the right face for his players. The best scene in Friday Nigh Lights is stolen by Derek Luke (most recently appeared in Spartan), in which his character realizes his days of being an athlete are over. We see this rising star with unlimited potential literally fall before our eyes, and because Luke gives a good performance, we forget that he was once a cocky and arrogant football player.

One of the biggest issues that I have with Friday Night Lights is the style in which the film was shot. The camera is constantly jerking around and never is without movement of some kind. Also, there are seemingly arbitrary zooms that happen constantly from scene to scene. This can be distracting to the point where it may take you out of the moment in the scene. I feel this style would have been more effective if it were used just during the football sequences; unfortunately we are forced into this style from start to finish. The other major problem I have with the film is its rating: the rating of PG-13 for Friday Night Lights may be one of the worst judgements ever handed down by the M.P.A.A. The movie is filled with graphic and intense scenes on the football field, along with some fairly strong sexual content in the beginning. Throw in constant colourful language and even several racial slurs, there is no reason this film should be rated PG-13. Be forewarned that this is a very edgy PG-13 film, and you may want to preview it before showing it to younger kids.  

Do not be mistaken, Friday Night Lights is not about the 1988 season of the Permian High Panthers; it is about the way high school football is viewed by the residents of Odessa, Texas and it’s surrounding communities. The athletes in the film (and apparently in real life as well) are looked upon as though they were professional football players in the National Football League. The fact that children, adults, and their peers treated these teenagers like heroes is what Friday Night Lights focuses on. Their season was somewhat forgettable as the actions that took place on the field could have happened to any high school team in any sport. It is the gravely serious nature of how the citizens of Odessa treated those involved with the Panthers which acts as the purpose behind telling this story.

Friday Night Lights
Video
Shot originally and presented at a 2:35:1 aspect ratio, one word best describes the video transfer: gritty. The print is mired with noise constantly throughout the film, and I would venture to guess that this is a deliberate choice to mirror the mood of the story. With the overall colour scheme for the film being earth tones such as varies shades of brown and beige, the picture doesn’t exactly jump off the screen at you. In fact, most of the time it is very dull. The only time the video quality is above average in terms of the colours showing any exuberance is in the last twenty minutes of the film. It is important to keep in mind though that this may be an intentional choice by the filmmaker to keep pace with the overall dark and gritty atmosphere of the rest of the film. After all, the location is set in a very rural area of Texas.

Coinciding with the dull colour palette are some technical issues with the video, first being haloing present from edge enhancement. This is a problem that occurs only a handful of times in the movie, and shouldn’t interfere with your viewing experience. The same goes for some grainy shots that are scattered throughout the film in that the instances are few and far between. Detail levels are generally good from start to finish, with no signs of artefacts. Overall the transfer is slightly below average, but certainly not poor by any means.

Audio
In addition to a French and Spanish stereo surround track, Friday Night Lights is given a 5.1 Dolby Digital audio treatment. While I didn’t hear any flaws in the audio track itself, the fact that it wasn’t a real encompassing mix is a real disappointment. In the stadium scenes (especially the Astrodome which holds upwards of 80,000 spectators) I expected to be blown away by combination of fans, the music, and the action on the field. Instead the result is very so-so with the majority of the problem being that the fronts are used too much with the rears getting too little. Despite the shortcomings in the sound design, the rest of the track is clear and free from hissing artefacts.

Friday Night Lights
Extras
Universal has packed a lot of extras into this single disc release, starting with an audio commentary featuring director Peter Berg and Friday Night Lights author H.G. Bissinger. The commentary is comprised mostly of Bissinger either dispelling inaccuracies in the story or heavily praising the movie (mostly the latter). One thing that wasn’t talked about at any depth was about how the football scenes were shot. I felt these scenes were extremely impressive and I would have loved to have gotten some information on that process; all that was given were a couple of sentences of praise to the football consultant. Oddly enough there is no mention anywhere on the package that there is an audio commentary on this DVD. Overall it’s a pretty informative guide to fact versus fiction in the movie, but a very uninformative look at the making of the film.

There are a little over a dozen deleted scenes on the disc totalling to roughly twenty minutes of cut footage from Friday Night Lights. They are mostly add-ons to scenes already in the movie and are better off left out of the film. The only scene that I really cared for was when L.V. Miles pays a visit to the coach about his nephew; it added a bit more depth to the character to make him more than just a relative that wanted to ride his nephew to fame and fortune, and would have served the movie in a positive way. Director Peter Berg also presents a scene that the studio had him add into the movie for pacing purposes, the beginning scene at the diner. While I think that a studio should allow a director free reign on making his or her picture, in this case the studio lucked out as it is a very light-hearted scene in a film that is surrounded by dark emotions.

Three featurettes round out the set starting with a look at country music star Tim McGraw’s jump to the film industry. This serves only as a promotional piece for McGraw and isn’t even worth a look. Granted his performance was very good in the movie, the featurette was very unnecessary. The Player Cam is a five minute highlight film of the football actors’ interaction with each other. I thought this would be a promising look at the football training, but was again not even worth a look. The final extra is a mini documentary running at about twenty five minutes of the story of the real 1988 Permian Panthers. I really liked this feature because it included interviews with the real-life people who were portrayed in the film. It also included actual footage from their season, which was fun to watch. A really fun extra would have been to include the actual state championship game from 1988, but perhaps I’m asking for a bit to much.

Apparently there are some DVD-Rom materials on the disc as well but I was unable to gain access to them at this point, possibly because the DVD has not hit store shelves yet. One final thing to note about the extras is that Universal has placed promotional trailers at the start of the film; while it’s easy to skip to the main menu, this is not a practice that anyone who buys DVD’s is happy with. Hopefully this will not become a common instance on Universal releases.

Friday Night Lights
Overall
In the midst of a society that immortalizes celebrities and athletes as heroes, Friday Night Lights examines what happens to those who have that status and are not ready for it. The theme of fortunes changing quickly is one that resonates true for aspiring athletes all over the world, and I’m sure will hit home to some of you as well. Universal’s release of Friday Nigh Lights is average and ultimately leaves you wanting more; yes there are a fair amount of extras for the film, but quantity does not necessarily result in quality. The movie itself is a must see for sports enthusiasts and die-hard football fans. For the casual viewer Friday Night Lights is worth a rental, as it is an interesting story to watch unfold. I myself can't see myself watching it on a regular basis, but those with an attachment to the sport certainly will.


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