Friday Night Lights
"Are you gonna win state this year? Are you gonna be perfect?" Anyone fortunate enough to have read H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, an inspiring and heartbreaking portrait of the Permian Panthers adversity-laden run for the 1988 Texas State High School Football Championship, knows the answer to those questions, asked ceaselessly by the Odessa townspeople searching for some kind of salvation in the wake of an oil boom gone bust. And where better to turn than the city's sturdiest symbol of success: a pigskin squad that's brought home numerous state titles in the past, and, at the time, seemed poised to do it again under the stern guidance of coach Gary Gaines and, most crucially, the powerful, cut-on-a-dime legs of running back Boobie Miles. Good as the team was with Boobie, there wouldn't have been much of a story had all gone according to pre-season plan; cruelly, it's when the team's stud went down with a torn ACL that Bissinger was handed a tale worth telling. A sprawling, multi-character study on the page, Friday Night Lights posed a challenge to multiple filmmakers who, for one reason or another, failed to crack its narrative spine. So, it was something of a surprise when the project finally got off the ground with actor-turned-director Peter Berg at the helm. Though he displayed flashes of greatness in the previous year's The Rundown, which, coincidentally, kicked off with a football-themed prologue that the film never topped, Berg hardly seemed a perfect fit for so trickily dense a story. But that's exactly what he turned out to be. Berg's 2004 Friday Night Lights isn't only a faithful-in-spirit adaptation of his cousin Bissinger's tome; it's a more bone-jarringly realistic depiction of the blood-and-guts nature of the sport than all the pretenders that have come before, including Oliver Stone's adrenalized Any Given Sunday. This is football in all of its unforgiving, body-sacrificing splendor; and if, rather than recruiting, it deters more young men from strapping on the pads, that might not be a bad thing, because the world Berg captures is one that puts an undue premium on athletic greatness at an age when the most of the game's combatants ought to be planning for a future beyond the field of play. Most of the pressure brought to bear on the film's young characters comes from Permian's greats of the past now eking out lives of loud, Skoal-spitting desperation, including Charles Billingsley (Tim McGraw), a drunken failure who bullies his fumble-prone son with the championship ring that will forever represent his greatest achievement on this planet. Meanwhile, those townspeople without a genetically-linked horse in the race heap their unrealistic, second-guessing expectations on coach Gaines (a masterfully understated Billy Bob Thornton), who struggles to redefine his team and the season after losing Boobie (Derek Luke), the player he built his entire offense around. Of all the heartbreaking stories effortlessly woven into Berg's quintessentially American tapestry, none are more painful to bear than Boobie's. In one fatal play, the kid goes from NFL aspirant to future garbage hauler, a destiny Boobie denies first through rage, then accepts through howling grief in the passenger seat of his uncle's jalopy after cleaning out his locker. Terrific in Antwone Fisher, Luke dazzles again here with his embodiment of frailty masked by incessant cockiness, with the aforementioned sequence standing out as the true heart of the film. Whereas the rest of the Panthers have one more shot at gridiron immortality, the miserable future of feeding off fast-fading glory has arrived for Boobie Miles, and it's this sad realization that lingers over the thrilling final game. Though the denouement does its best to send the viewer out on an upbeat note, it's regret rather than inspiration that is the ultimate, subversive legacy of Friday Night Lights. For that reason, Berg's picture feels an awful lot like an American classic. Time will tell. Universal presents Friday Night Lights in an outstanding anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with bruising Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a very worthwhile feature-length commentary from Berg and Bissinger, 10 deleted scenes, a brief featurette in which Berg gives the rationale for a critical reshoot, a behind-the-scenes visit with the young actors entitled "Player Cam" (4 min.), an interview with country music star Tim McGraw (6 min.), a featurette on the real 1988 Permian Panthers (22 min.), cast-and-filmmaker bios, and DVD-ROM extras. Keep-case with paperboard slipcase.