Monday, May 23, 2005

Review - Friday Night Lights

Those of us who do not live in the United States may not think high-school level American football sounds like anything too important. It sounds like a youth set-up, a stepping stone to the real thing, and nothing more. However, success in the sport is often the only way for a teenager to break out and make a something of himself. The team’s most important players will often get good grades by default to allow them to concentrate on their game, and college scholarships will be on offer to the star players in a successful season.

Not only that, there is also the pressure of the local community to see the team succeed. This is a chance for the whole town to vicariously enjoy a taste of success, a spell in the spotlight, and an escape from the daily grind. The players and coaching staff will be treated like gods after every victory, and like pariahs after every defeat. It’s a hell of a lot of pressure to place on the shoulders of such young men and Friday Night Lights is a film which brings home this home with startling clarity. “You’ve got to lighten up, you’re 17” one player tells his colleague, “I don’t feel 17” comes the embittered reply.

Based on a true story, which was later reported in HG Bissinger’s acclaimed book, Friday Night Lights follows the Permian Panthers, a high-school football team from Odessa, West Texas. Gary Gaines, played with typical charm by Billy Bob Thornton, is the coach responsible for this year’s campaign and there is no doubt at the start of the film that expectations are high. The pre-season training sessions are swamped with television crews, the radio stations are full of callers proclaiming great things for the current crop of players, and Gaines cannot walk down the street without being bombarded with tactical advice. Odessa becomes a ghost town when there’s a match on, the place only ever comes alive inside the stadium on Friday nights.

This may sound like a typical, triumph-against-the-odds sports film, but nothing could be further from the truth. Tautly directed by Peter Berg, the film carefully avoids the pitfalls, stereotypes and clich├ęs of the genre, instead focusing on character and underplaying the emotion successfully. The screenplay, by Berg and David Aaron Cohen, is a model of economy. It presents us with a few distinct characters, each with their own traumas and obstacles, and carefully develops them until we are completely enveloped in their stories. Quarterback Mike(Lucas Black) has bags of talent but his ailing mother is a heavy load on his mind. Star player ‘Boobie’ Miles (Derek Luke) loves the spotlight until an injury threatens his season, and his future. Running back Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) has to deal with his drunken abusive father (Tim McGraw), who mocks his every effort on the field. Charles Billingsley won the state championship years ago and his life was an inexorable downward slide ever since. Pushing his championship ring aggressively into his son’s face is the only sign of potency he can muster.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Gaines as an easygoing character who has a burning fire he can unleash when he needs to. He takes the criticisms and the taunts after a defeat with gritted teeth and a smile, preferring to do his talking on the field. A gentleman in a brutal sport.

Director Peter Berg uses handheld cameras and a washed-out palette to fully immerse the audience in this world. He carefully balances the emotion with the spectacle and builds the tension expertly, delivering a big game climax which is both gripping and extremely moving. Only his use of music jars occasionally, with much of it being ill-chosen and intrusive. It’s an unnecessary embellishment, as the action speaks for itself.

Does it matter if you don’t know the first thing about American Football? Not a bit. By the climax I was as involved in this team’s efforts as if I had been a fan. This is not just a sports movie; it’s a film about broken dreams, hopes and fears; themes anyone can relate to and be affected by. The story of the Panthers’ 1988 season is a remarkable one, full of twists, setbacks and pain, but no viewer can fail to be impressed with the determination and desire these young men show throughout. It’s not just a sport for these boys, it’s everything. Bill Shankly may have been referring to another type of football when he said “it’s not a matter of life and death, it’s far more important than that”, but his famous words have seldom seemed so appropriate.