Sports movies have their work cut out for them. Studios cannot afford the focus to be too much on the sporting side because that would alienate the wider audience they require and at the same time this means the sport is seldom depicted to a true fan's satisfaction. So nobody gets what they want - sports fans are disappointed and anybody not interested in the sport is immediately going to be put off by the prevailing subject matter. Of course we get some exceptions but normally these films are thrillers or satires where the sports side is just a secondary aspect of the proceedings.
Friday Night Lights is all about High School Football. It's Odessa, West Texas, 1988 and we're in the home of the Permian Panthers, where a bunch of seventeen year-old high school students are awaiting their pre-season try-outs. Although not the most brotherly group, they get the job done and are on the brink of qualifying for the state play-offs, largely thanks to a coach who gets paid more than the high school headmaster himself. At the centre of the action we have Mike, a promising but troubled young hopeful who wants to get clear out of Texas on a football scholarship as soon as possible. One of his team-mates has even bigger problems though, in the form of an intrusive, violent drunk of a father who is putting enough pressure on him to drive him clear over the edge. Even the star-played, Booby, finds it impossible to come to terms with the MRI looming over his head that could mean the end of his football career. This, his second season, finds the Coach struggling to keep everything together - between pressure from the School board, the press, the parents and basically the whole town, along with injuries to players (both on and off the field) he has his work cut out of him.
Friday Night Lights is a lovingly crafted portrait of High School football at its grandest. It is made for, by and about people who love this game - who think this is the greatest sport in the world - and whatever arguments I have in that matter mean nothing during the two hours that this movie plays over. Shot with a slightly old-fashioned tint, using lots of handhelds, slow-motion and fast cuts from scene to scene, the movie plays out like a series of picture postcards with brief notes scribbled on them. We get a few moments with this character, a few with that, a few with the coach, a couple of snippets of football action - players colliding, cheerleaders star-jumping - and then back to snippets with the different characters, few scenes lasting more than a couple of minutes. This is not a problem and in fact it allows the stories to evolve is a much more involving manner, as the lives of these characters take their various twists and turns, but it is a very different style of filmmaking and does to have a propensity to favour filler montage sequences (which I despise).
The biggest name on the box is that of Billy Bob Thornton - the man who somehow went from being an extra in Steven Seagal movies to Angelina Jolie's husband. He is always quite a captivating watch, although I do not like all of his movies, but here he underplays it quite modestly as the coach to allow the sport to take the centre stage. At the lead of the players we have Lucas Black, who you may remember as the kid, Caleb, from the excellent U.S. TV series American Gothic back in the nineties. He is consistently focussed and desperate to win but appears to have forgotten to have fun, what with all the pressure on this team to do well. The injured golden boy, Boobie is played to perfection as both cocky and vulnerable by Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund plays Charlie, the kid with the angry father, who seems to be integral in the first half but gives way - at least on the field - to the presence of both Winchell and the soft-spoken Preacher, played by Lee Jackson, who finds his voice in the last game.
Friday Night Lights is a movie all about American football. The passion, the pain, the loss and the fame, it is all captured here in a stunningly stylish work of art. Less about just one match, just one play and just one character, what we get is the spirit of this sport distilled into two hours' worth of movie. The director, Peter Berg, who is moderately famous both on screen in movies like The Last Seduction and TV series' like Alias and off screen directing projects that include the fun The Rock vehicle, The Rundown, has done a superb job. At the end of the day though, those with little interest in American Football (which may well be a great many UK buyers) are going to find this film contains little else. It has committed the cardinal sin of sports movies and paints a picture so true to the sport that there is little room for anything else, potentially alienating a huge amount of the customer base. Thankfully, in making this sacrifice, we get a film that does pay respect to the sport in such a way that followers are actually going to be proud of the cinematic representation - for once - and in staying true to its subject matter I think it may just slowly draw in a wider audience who want to see just why this game is so treasured, knowing that the answer lies here.
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