I always thought that the sports movie must be the toughest type of cinematic genre to get right. Because let's face it, at the end of any rousing, inspirational film about sports we demand that the home team win the big game. Would 'Rocky' have become an Oscar-winning triumph if Rocky had gotten beaten to a pulp and died in the final round? Would 'Hoosiers' have become such a sleeper smash if the Iowa Huskers had bungled that one final winning basket? And would anyone still 'Remember the Titans' if instead of winning the team had to throw the big game to pay off a gambling debt? Probably not. We love our sports and we love our sports teams, but whatever flaws they may have, there had better be a big redemptive finale or your would-be blockbuster will become just another box office failure littering the back shelves of Blockbuster ('Everybody's All-American,' anyone?).
Given such rigid conventions and the need for a predictable outcome, there isn't much latitude for filmmakers hoping to explore other aspects of America's love affair with sports. That's why 'Friday Night Lights' is so refreshing. It's more akin to dramas like 'All the Right Moves,' 'Any Given Sunday' and 'Jerry Maguire,' all of which deal with life on the gridiron of broken dreams but are not really "sports movies" in the traditional sense. Gone or seriously muddled in 'Friday Night Lights' are most of the cliches that hamper the more predictable football flicks -- the ragtag band of high school misfits who will come from behind to win the big game, the has-been coach with a dark secret who will get his last shot at glory, and the inevitable small-town love interest who hates football but eventually becomes as big of a cheerleader on the sidelines as at home. Instead, 'Friday Night Lights' depicts a world where there is no black and white, only shades of gray.
Based on H.G. Bissinger's book and inspired by true events, 'Friday Night Lights' chronicles the heavy expectations and intense pressures placed on The Permian High Panthers, a high school football in the economically depressed small town of Odessa, Texas. In Odessa football is king, and failure is not an option -- not only for the racially diverse players but also Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thorton). But when the team loses its star player in the first game of the season, all hope seems lost and the town goes into a tailspin. But miraculously, just when things are at their worst, Coach Gaines is able to pull the team together, and the Panthers make an unlikely run for the state playoffs.
Certainly, that plot description doesn't exactly inspire confidence that 'Friday Night Lights' will be anything more than 'Hoosiers'-lite. But I like the unusual choices director Peter Berg ('Very Bad Things,' 'The Rundown') takes with the material. Though the film has plenty of quick-cut football scenes, Berg uses the sport as a metaphor, a backdrop to the simmering tensions in the town and between the players. He also has a solid eye for casting, with rising stars Lucas Black, Jay Hernandez and Derek Luke bringing a genuine pathos and urgency to their roles (even if they are a bit too homogeneously good-looking for the same small-town high school), and screenwriters Berg and David Aaron Cohen nicely flesh out the stock characters by giving them realistic family lives and backstories. Casting Billy Bob Thorton is also inspired, bringing an edginess to a somewhat unlikable character (really, has there ever been a coach in one of these movies that isn't a curmudgeon?) that keeps us off-balance.
By the time of the film's inevitable "will they or won't they win the big game" climax, I was wrapped up enough in the characters that I no longer minded that there was little suspense in the outcome. But even this familiar formula is handled adroitly. I won't spoil it for you -- you can probably guess what happens anyway -- but again Berg and Cohen focus more on its effect on the characters and their eventual fates than about winning or losing. These are kids with tough lives, with unreal expectations and futures that, even with a potential scholarship in tow, are no sure thing. 'Friday Night Lights' may not reinvent the sports movie, but it is an above-average example of a genre that has long been far too formulaic.
Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and encoded at 1080p, Universal has produced a particularly impressive HD transfer for 'Friday Night Lights' considering how rough the film's photographic style is. A considerable amount of the movie was shot with hand-held cameras, which gives the film a grainy, you-are-there cinema verite look, but this transfer handles it quite well. Blacks are solid and contrast generally excellent; despite many low-lit scenes and clearly visible film grain, there is a nice sense of detail. Sharpness is also above average, which gives the picture considerable depth and clarity. I was also impressed with this transfer's color reproduction; though the film is somewhat drab by design (trust me, Odessa, Texas is not a pretty place to live) and the hues are considerably tweaked in post-production, I noticed no bleed or chroma noise. Fleshtones are also accurate which helps further the film's realistic milieu. All in all, 'Friday Night Lights' looks considerably better than I expected.
Unfortunately, I wasn't as impressed with the audio as I was with the video. With such aggressive camerawork on display I expected a soundtrack more active and enveloping to accompany it. But as presented in English Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround, the mix is quite front heavy. Though that's not a problem during the film's dramatic moments, the football sequences lack power. The rear channels just never come alive -- I was quite stunned at how little sound emanated from my back speakers when so much action was happening onscreen. (Kinda depressing, actually.) However, on the plus side dynamic range is excellent with very spacious mid-range and clean highs, and powerful low bass. Even minor discrete sounds, such as a palm gripping a football or the delicate dropping of rain, are clearly audible. I just wish that level of attention to detail was coming through all of the speakers, not just the front.
Porting over all of the extras from last year's standard DVD release (excluding its text-based filmographies and ROM features, which in all honesty are no big loss), 'Friday Night Light's gets a fairly thorough if conventional batch of supplements.
First up is an audio commentary with director Peter Berg and author Buzz Bissinger, upon whose book the film is based (and who is also Berg's real-life cousin). I actually liked this track quite a bit because it deviated from the norm by not focusing so much on the particulars of the making of the film or the staging of its intricate football scenes. Rather, Berg and Bissinger largely discuss adapting the novel and the challenges in compressing characters and situations to fit a two-hour runtime. So while some may lament the lack of in-depth production details, I welcomed this slightly different take on your usual filmmaker commentary track.
Next up are four featurettes; unfortunately, three of them are fairly weak. "Peter Berg Discusses a Scene in the Movie" is a perfectly fine idea, but oddly he chooses only a minor diner scene to analyze which isn't even that dramatic. Hardly gripping stuff. "Player Cam" is a four-minute time-waster shot by cast member Ryan Jacobs that is mostly the actors goofing around and nothing substantial. "Tim McGraw: Off the Stage" is a six-minute spotlight on the musician-slash-actor, but since he is actually quite good in the film (playing a total jackass of a character) it is not as ingratiating as it sounds. But the last is certainly the best, the 23-minute "Story of the 1988 Permian Panthers." Featuring archival footage as well as new interviews today with the real-life team portrayed in the film, it offers much-needed perspective on the events fictionalized in the movie. I really love these kinds of historical pieces, and they are so welcome given all the EPK fluff that usually clogs up DVD releases these days.
Rounding out the extras is an assortment of ten deleted and extended scenes running 22 minutes. There are a few good moments here or there, mostly expanding upon the pressures faced by the team members as well as the town's growing harassment of Coach Gaines. But like most of these deleted scene collections, much of the material would only have slowed the film down and was wisely cut.
I quite liked 'Friday Night Lights.' Tough, gritty and focusing more on the human drama behind the game than just the cliches, it is an above-average example of a frequently disreputable genre. As an HD DVD release, Universal offers a very nice video transfer though the audio could use a bit of sprucing up. But factoring in the nice set of extras (and two bonus featurettes exclusive to the HD DVD), overall this is a fine package and makes for a solid upgrade over the standard DVD release.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.