Monday, October 28, 2013

Friday Night Lights (2004)

Friday Night LightsMy Gawd, I love football.

'Tis a sport that offers the purest microcosm of life: Play as a team--succeed; play as individuals--fail. Those of us who have strapped on the pads and grunted and groaned in the trenches know this incontrovertible truth all too well. A single unit is much greater than the sum of all its individual parts, and this stellar truism is manifested magnificently in Peter Berg's sensational film FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.

Again, I love football, and I particularly enjoy football movies that capture the grit and dark hubris of the sport, but this film stands alone in its overwhelming ability to portray a game, a west Texas town, its residents, its players, and its shameless addiction to the gridiron to a degree that transcends every single facet of human existence. In a community intoxicated with football, in a culture intoxicated with football, in an infrastructure that lives, eats, breaths, and sleeps football, the 1988 Odessa Permian Panthers are about to embark on a spectacular odyssey that will catapult and devour them at the same time: a magical, mystical season taking the coaches and players up and down the peaks and valleys of high school sports nirvana.

This is a film that garners attention to itself for infinite reasons. A great story, based on a bestselling book. Cinematography second to none, thanks to Tobias A. Schliessler, that gives the movie its gritty, handheld, "documentary" feel. A fast-paced, action-packed, totally believable series of scenes, augmented by an absolute killer soundtrack. And acting--oh yes, some very convincing, authentic, been-there-done-that acting.

As great as this film is, it is enhanced by the talents of the players who bring west Texas football to life before our very eyes: Lucas Black as a scowling, brooding, ultimately insecure quarterback Mike Winchell; Derek Luke as the budding NFL superstar "Boobie" Miles, whose knee injury derails his career and summons one of the most poignant scenes in the film; Jay Hernandez as steady, reliable Brian Chavez; and Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Gary Gaines. Thornton is a gifted actor, but this is perhaps his best role, as he portrays a man obsessed with getting his team to the pinnacle of success--yet disgusted with the one-dimensional, win-at-all-costs mentality of his current gig. Thornton is flawless; he does exceptional work.

Three other characters moved me, and moved me considerably. Perhaps, because I can readily identify with all of them. Garrett Hedlund plays Odessa tailback Don Billingsley--a troubled soul because his father, a former jock (Tim McGraw) refuses to accept his son's perceived inattentiveness and does nothing more than relive his own glory days two decades before. I know so many men who suffer exactly from the same malady, and could readily identify with the character, despite his shortcomings. Yet, at the end of the film, when troubled father and son reconcile problematically, I was very much affected.

Finally, I identified with "Preacher," the stoic, silent, solid defensive end from Permian, played by a somber-faced Lee Jackson. He went through the hell of two-a-days, saying nothing. He went through the trials and tribulations of the regular season, saying nothing. He saw games won, games lost, players come, players go, but still his resolve was not shaken, and at last--during halftime of Permian's game against very formidable Dallas Carter for the state championship--he released his fury and anguish to his teammates to fight and scrap and persevere, the character rose above the din and ruckus to prove, very admirably, how sports is, once again, a splendid microcosm of life.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is a whirling Texas twister of entertainment. The film is priceless; the DVD extras remarkable. This product is quality entertainment, top to bottom. Highly, highly, highly recommended.

--D. Mikels, author, WALK-ON

This is a well-made movie and true to life in every way. I'm not a fan of cursing and sex in movies, but I must admit that even the party scene in this movie is (unfortunately) an accurate reflection of life in such an environment. I've lived in a small Texas town and can vouch for the fact that star athletes (or entire teams in the case of a winning tradition like Odessa Permian's) are treated as heroes in such places. These towns live and die by their football team, and ex-players who remain in the town past high school love nothing more than to relive their 'glory days.' All of this has already been stated by previous reviewers, so let me add a different twist.

This movie should be shown to all high school student athletes so that they can learn that, while athletics are fun and can be an important component in a person's life, academics are more important and will take you further (yes, I know, there are the ones who do make the big time, but they are few and far between). I am not talking about trying to discourage kids from participating in athletics or quashing their dreams, but I am talking about being realistic and having an education to fall back upon. Boobie Miles, the star running back in the film (and in real life), is a classic example of this. The biggest college football programs in the nation were pursuing him until he had a serious, season-ending knee injury. The most poignant scene in the film, in my opinion, occurs after Miles has cleaned out his locker and is sitting in the car with his uncle. He begins to cry and tell his uncle that he doesn't know how to do anything but play football (Miles was shown earlier in the film having difficulty reading one of the letters of interest he had received from a university). At the end of the film we find out that Miles lives with his twins in Monahans, TX (another small town in the desolate Permian Basin of Texas). Interestingly, although the end of the film tells us what other players Mike Winchell, Brian Chavez, Don Billingsley are doing now, no mention is made of what Miles does for living. I can't help but wonder if this is due to embarassment at what he does (though, personally, I believe that if a person is a contributing member of society, then his occupation as long as it's legal isn't important).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, there is Brian Chavez. As a student athlete he had his priorities in order: he loved football, but he made sure that he also did well academically. We find out at the end of the film that he attended Harvard and now practices criminal law in Odessa. He obviously knew that football wasn't going to carry him forever.

We have seen examples of what can happen to even those athletes who do make it to the professional leagues but don't have any plans for what to do once their careers end (whatever the reason may be for them ending: injury, substance abuse, or simply reaching the end of the line athletically). Former Washington Redskin Dexter Manley stands out as the most glaring example of such an athlete; years after substance abuse brought his career to an early end and poor business decisions left him bankrupt, Manley came forth and admitted that he was illiterate. That says a lot about how messed up our society's priorities sometimes are, and so does the film "Friday Night Lights."

Enjoy the film it's definitely a well-done movie but don't be afraid to use it as an object lesson for those who prioritize athletics over all else (and if you're one of those people, then maybe the lesson will get through to you). My wife shares my love of sports movies (a rare thing in a wife), but she didn't like this movie because she thought it was "depressing." I didn't agree with her that the entire movie is depressing, but I do agree that the fact that there are so many cases like Boobie Miles and Dexter Manley in this country is depressing.

Buy Friday Night Lights (2004) Now

Ever since Peter Bogdanovich, in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, provided a comic view of a small town's total involvement in the fortunes of a high school football team (remember the verbal abuse the locals heaped on Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms when they lost the 'big game'?), Hollywood has attempted, with varying degrees of success, to make the 'definitive' small town/football film.

Director Peter Berg has finally done it, with FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS!

Based on H. G. Bissinger's best-selling tale of the 1988 season of the Odessa (Texas) 'Permian Panthers', the film unflinchingly paints a vivid canvas of a school and community obsessed with winning, as football provides the only release from poverty and desperation. While the concept is reminiscent of Tom Cruise's earlier ALL THE RIGHT MOVES, Berg doesn't glamorize the hero or tie things up, neatly, at the climax; in real life, while victories are savored, they are, at best, a temporary 'high'...while defeats can drive rational people into irrational frenzies. The Panthers' fortunes are such a crutch to Odessa's emotional well-being, that each game becomes a narcotic 'fix' for the entire community...a situation potentially dangerous for the players, and their coaches.

While Billy Bob Thornton has received the bulk of media attention, as the stern but fair head coach (with glowing reviews for BAD SANTA, and THE ALAMO, Thornton is having a career-defining year!), the film is really an ensemble work, with stand-out performances by Lucas Black, Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund, and, surprisingly, singer Tim McGraw (as Hedlund's 'reliving past glories' father). The entire cast is exceptional, avoiding the easy pitfalls of simply playing stereotypes.

At times brutal and gritty, at times nearly surrealistic, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS refuses to fall into the clichés that marred VARSITY BLUES and THE PROGRAM, eschewing the artsy but smug self-righteousness of Oliver Stone's ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, as well.

This may well be the finest football film ever well as one of the most honest portrayals of life in a small town.

I will be surprised if it doesn't make most critics' 'Ten Best' lists, at year's end, and is a major Oscar contender.

Peter Berg has gotten the formula right!

Read Best Reviews of Friday Night Lights (2004) Here

I live in Minnesota, where high school hockey is the state religion and the right of passage for seniors is to go to the State Tournament, even if there school does not make it that far. Parents (not just fathers) send their sons to live in other school districts so they can get more playing time or play with a better team. Everyone who has seen "Hoosiers" know that in Indiana it is high school basketball that is the subject of such devotion, but if you needed to see "Friday Night Lights" to know that neither of those state religions holds a candle to high school football in Texas, then you are just not a true sports fan. Even before H.G. Bissinger's Pulitzer Prize winning book, "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream," I knew the people of West Texas took their high school football seriously (I lived in New Mexico when I went to high school, so it would have been hard not to notice).

Director Peter Berg's film version of "Friday Night Lights" is based on the true story of the Odessa-Permian Panthers and their 1988 season. What "true" means in this case is that the name of the coach and the key players are accurate, as are the number of losses the Panthers had that year (although the scores are different, as is one of the opponents). Overall, the film avoids going Hollywood until the final game, which does manage to be true to the spirit of the film even if it requires a stupid play call to help things along (I am sorry, but if it is 4th down and half the length of a football to go, and your offensive line outweighs the defense by at least 50 pounds a person, you call a quarterback sneak and get a least a yard more than you need just by firing off the ball; at least, that is what my father has always told me and since he played college football for an undefeated team, Trinity in Connecticut, I tend to listen to him).

This film affirms, for the upteenth time, that the main thing wrong with sports involving kids are the adults, either in the form of the parents, or the concerned citizens whose support of coach is based primarily on the score of the last game. The prototypical parent in this story is Charles Billingsley (Tim McGraw), who has his state championship ring and makes it clear that his son, Don (Garrett Hedlund), will be a failure if he does not do the same. Unfortunately, Don has a tendency to fumble, so Charles has no problem going down onto the field during practice to set the boy straight. Is Don playing football for his dad or despite his dad? There is no easy answer to that question, because life, family, and football are all wrapped up together in Odessa, Texas. The town might be mired in an economic depression, but that does not stop them from having a football stadium bigger than what some colleges and universities enjoy.

Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) is supposed to go undefeated and win the state championship. Perham has done this four times before, in 1965, 1976, 1980, and 1984. Apparently they have a four year crop rotation program going and everybody in town can do the math to figure out 1988 is going to be the year. When the Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) the star running back gets hurt the coach gets the blame even though it is clear, like in a classic Greek tragedy, that the Fates are punishing the sin of hubris. Boobie is all ready to spend his money for playing in the NFL and he has not even picked a college yet. Basking in his stardom, Boobie gladly admits to reporters that he gets straight A's because he is an athlete and as he leaves defenders in the wake of his sweet moves you can understand why he is the most important play for Permian. But the goddess of mischief hides the helmet of his backup Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young), and everybody knows that when you are running the score up and keep your superstar in the game, somebody is going to go gunning for him.

There are several key factors that make "Friday Night Lights" work. The first is Thornton's performance, which is yet another reminder that he is one of the finest film actors around today. His Coach Gaines goes between moments of screaming at his players in the grand tradition of football coaches going back to Knute Rockne and beyond and measured silences as he endures another rabid fan excoriating him on talk radio or the "For Sale" signs that have sprung up in his front yard after a loss. But there are also moments when the speaks from the heart, whether it is to his quarterback, Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) in the squalid home the kid shares with his mentally disturbed mother (Connie Cooper), or the final halftime speech to his team. What distinguishes Gaines from every other man in the story is that he knows that in the end, football is just a game. He just has to be careful about who he shares this particular bit of wisdom with during the season.

Berg makes a brilliant decision to shoot this story as if it were a documentary. This works well in the extended game sequences, but suits the rest of the film as well, which is important because the most important moments in "Friday Night Lights" come at other times. Some of the best scenes take place away from the lighted field as Boobie and his uncle (Grover Coulson) deal with the disappearance of the dream during a visit to a doctor, when the garbage truck makes it rounds, and when the kid cleans out his locker. This leads to the third key factor, which is that we care about the kids that the story focuses on, including the silent "Preacher" (Lee Jackson) and the kid who is going to Harvard to become a lawyer, Brain Chavez (Jay Hernandez). We do not care about the fans or the families or the rest of the town, just the kids, and their performances match those of Thornton in providing a realism that we just do not get in most of the films in the sports genre.

I really liked this movie until the end, where the action and the emotions smack too much of Hollywood, not to mention David versus Goliath, than what had been established up to that point. Still, in the end Berg focuses exactly where he should, on the kids who have finished their high school football careers and the coach who has to immediately start planning for next year, when Odessa-Permian would again undertake the sacred quest for perfection.

Want Friday Night Lights (2004) Discount?

Ever wonder why those midwestern universities Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, etc seem to be so obsessed with football? Watching FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, based on the book of the same title by H.G. Bissinger about the 1988 season of the Odessa (Texas) Permian Panthers high school team, we learn that the fixation is acquired early in life, especially if the town has nothing else going for it but prairie grass or, in the case of Odessa, stinky oil wells.

Billy Bob Thornton, as the Panthers' head coach Gary Gaines, gives what may be the first Oscar-worthy performance of the 2004 film season. Odessa expects the Panthers to win the state championship, and no excuses for failure are acceptable. As Coach Gaines admonishes his players:

"You have the responsibility of protecting this team and this school and this town."

Yes, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is about football (and contains some of the best gridiron action you'll ever see outside of the real thing), but, in a larger arena, it's a commentary on the almost crushing pressure on teenage athletes to win the Big One for town, school, friends, and family. It could just as well be about baseball, basketball, or ice hockey.

At the outset, Gaines builds his offense around a single, star running back, Boobie Miles (Derek Luke). But after Miles is seriously injured early on and lost to the team for the season, the burden falls on senior quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) and the fumble-prone running back, Don Billingsley (Garret Hedlund). Winchell's focus is hindered by the realization that going off to college will force him to leave behind his dependent mother. On the other hand, the hapless Billingsley is constantly browbeaten by his abusive father Charles (CW singer Tim McGraw), once himself a player on a champion Panther squad, who can't understand why Don is so inept and fears that his son may squander the only chance he'll ever have for the memory of a fleeting glory in an otherwise unremarkable life. However, Derek Luke provides the film's undeniably most powerful scene worthy a Best Supporting nod by itself when he emotionally breaks down under the realization that he can no longer do the only thing he's good at, i.e. play football.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is undoubtedly a Guy Flick. While my wife wasn't exactly bored in the cinema seat, she can't understand why I'm rating the film so highly. It's partly because of Billy Bob's superb performance, but also because it's lean and hard-hitting film about boys being shoved into manhood by pressures beyond their control. In another era, the film would have been about young men forged in the hell of armed combat. Here, it's just west Texas.

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