Directed by Peter Berg
Written by David Aaron Cohen and Peter Berg
Friday Night Lights has gone through many iterations. First, it happened in reality when the 1988 Permian Panthers had a magical run in the Texas High School football season, then Buzz Bissinger released a book about it. A lot of time passed, and Peter Berg made a movie based on the tale. This movie. There then came a television series on NBC which was more liberal with the story and was a fairly successful and critically acclaimed show. It’s hard for me to really get a pulse on how the film was released, but it’s always been one of my favorite football films. This marathon has uncovered many others, but I was certainly curious to see if it would hold up. Spoiler alert: it totally does.
The Permian Panthers from Odessa, a West Texas town with nothing on its mind except high school football, are expecting to ride their star running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) to the state title. It’s a championship or bust for head coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), his boosters have made as much very clear. But after Boobie experiences an unfortunate injury, the team is forced to band together behind their captains (Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Jay Hernandez, Lee Jackson) to still make the dream a reality for this football crazy town. But as just high school kids, can they bear the pressure put on them by family and friends, or will they break and be a disappointment to everyone?
What we’ve seen from these football movies is a mix of character studies, comedies and full blown dramas. With Peter Berg’s film, we get a mix of everything as we enter into the lives of these kids and coaches on the journey for the “time of their lives”. It’s quite eye opening to watch as townsfolk repeatedly refer to their high school football years as the best of their life. It’s all dull family life and hard work in a small town afterward. No excitement. For towns like Odessa, I’m sure that’s true, but how sad to think that your life might peak at 18, with the rest of your life predetermined. That’s what fuels stars like Boobie Miles to making it to college ball, to get out of town.
Peter Berg’s visual style somehow works wonders to the story. Extreme closeups, sudden camera movement. It manages to enhance and bring out the more frenetic and random qualities of a sport like football. I can see how some would be annoyed or put off by the style, but I thought it worked. In many ways, this feels like the better version of Varsity Blues, a film that felt rushed out and directed at an audience who just wanted to see some kids party (looking at you MTv Films). It tells a very similar story, but Berg’s vision focuses on the story much more than the superficiality of high school football/lifestyle.
As for the football action, it’s pretty well done and marries nicely with the aforementioned visual style. And in terms of the halftime speech, Friday Night Lights features one of the best from Billy Bob Thornton. And while he doesn’t directly say it, it’s pretty clear this speech gave inspiration to the “Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose” mantra that the television show made famous. It’s a great speech and worth watching on its own, but as the film cressendo’s to this moment near the end of the film, it’s clear Berg and the cast have planted the emotional seed throughout to make this scene work. We’re invested in these kids, in Coach Gaines, and that’s a great credit to the film.