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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Movie Review: Friday Night Lights 

There are two different ways to look at Friday Night Lights. Those who have read Buzz Bissinger's book will no doubt judge the movie in terms of how true it remains to the bestseller. Moviegoers that have not read the book (and they should be ashamed of themselves) will be more likely to judge it in terms of how FNL relates to other football movies -- for instance, Varsity Blues. As I have read the book twice, I can really only speak for the former.

First off, the "movies based on books always disappoint" crowd can rest easy. Though the film isn't a cover-to-cover adaptaion, director Peter Berg sticks close to his cousins's storyline, wandering only on occasion. Berg changes portions of the plot for dramatic effect and for brevity, but it remains mostly true to the real life saga of the 1988 Permian Panthers.

That Permian squad fought adversity through the course of a grueling fifteen week season. In their struggle to capture a state championship they faced long odds and high expectations. And what of the outcome? Was it a successful one? Well it's really up to each individual spectator's perspective to determine for his or her self. Berg's movie shows that, just as Bissinger's book did.

FNL depicts football-crazy Odessa as it was and how it mostly still is. The city shuts down for Mojo games and the teenage warriors are not just football players, they're heroes to both the children that adore them and the adults that live vicariously through them. And even when it seems like FNL goes over the top with its depiction of the idolatry of Texas high school football, it remains grounded in a reality that defies its own unbelievablity.

That sense of realism is what I enjoyed best about this movie. It's easy to use a story like FNL and a place like Odessa as a catalyst to criticize and ridicule. Some backwoods Texas town emphasizes football too much? Hey, let's make a movie trashing them and everything they stand for. It's just the kind of garbage that MTV pulled with their abomination of a football movie, Varsity Blues.

"Ah don't wont yer lahf," VB's Ivy League-destined star Johnny Moxon tells his dad, just before leading a team revolt against evil coach Bud Kilmer in the season finale. FNL doesn't do that. Berg depicts the Panther players as they were in the book. He shows their sympathetic side as well as their flaws, and thank the Lord, he uses actors that can accurately pull off a West Texas drawl.

Friday Night Lights does misfire at times; some of the book's charachters go unmentioned, while others aren't fully developed. Chalk that up, however, to the impossible nature of cramming 400 pages into two hours, as opposed to a script that substitutes Hollywood chicanery for creative ambition.

The only exception that I really have with FNL is its glaring neglect of the racial divide that plays such a key role in the book. Berg takes a few stabs, most notably in the almost literal retelling of the pow-wow between the Permian and Dallas carter coaching staffs, immediately preceding the story's climax. The remainder of the movie, however, fails to adequately address the issue.

Overall [warning: cliched sports metaphors ahead] Friday Night Lights scores more than it fumbles. Berg takes a well-documented story and treats it like a winning gameplan, avoiding the temptation of calling one too many audibles. I'd rank it among the best sports movies I've seen. 8/10


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