Early on in Friday Night Lights, a film about high school football culture in Texas, we witness a preseason practice of Odessa's Permian Panthers. Parents and college scouts litter the stands, media crowd the perimeter of the field, and the players form a huge circle. In the middle of the circle, players, two at a time, take turns running into each other, helmet on helmet, pads on pads. And you don't just hear the collision, you feel it. The impact is so shudderingly visceral that the notion of having high school kids doing this as part of a sanctioned school activity seems insane.
But in Odessa, as in so many other small (and not-so-small) towns around the country, this particular insanity permeates the community. Directed by Peter Berg (taking a big leap up from the likes of The Rundown and Very Bad Things) and based on the best-selling nonfiction book of the same title, Friday Night Lights offers a matter-of-fact, relatively nonjudgmental portrait of small towns obsessed with their teenage gladiators, whose job, as their coach tells them, isn't merely to play hard or to win but to protect the town. And if they don't get that message from the coach, they sure as hell do from adult former players and town guardians.
These teenaged homeland-security agents aren't combatting international terrorism but creeping community irrelevance. The pride of Odessa particularly of adults living vicariously through the team is at stake, and rival forces from places like Midland are ready to snatch it away. But the kids are well-fortified for battle: In Friday Night Lights' Odessa, the high school football coach gets paid more than the principal, and talk-radio callers respond to complaints that money spent on a new stadium should have gone to the school with a flip "The stadium's part of the school, ain't it?"
Friday Night Lights follows the Panthers, led by Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), during the 1988 season, as they march toward the state finals. The grainy, washed-out look of the film, the verité-style immediacy, and the dossier-like precision in which it tracks the season all seem directly inspired by Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. And even though it reeks of mimicry, it's also an inspired model.
In the early portion of the film, Berg goes overboard with hand-held camerawork and quick editing, over-directing in an attempt to prove that he isn't just making another Varsity Blues. He settles down in the second half, where the film spends most of its time on the field. This strategy works since the football scenes here are fantastic, both realistic and exciting. (Berg apparently weaves actual game footage with footage staged especially for the film.)
Thornton is simply superb in the coach's role, his expert underplaying keeping the film from getting too overheated. Thornton's reserve works in his favor when he's asked to give the inevitable Big Speech at the end. Thornton's Gaines is a tough, decent guy but no hero. He takes everything in and is circumspect about revealing much of anything. He's under tremendous community pressure to win (after the first loss of the season, he returns home to find his yard littered with "for sale" signs), and he passes that pressure down to his players. He's also not above looking the other way when his star player chooses to ignore medical advice on an injury.
With Thornton leading the way, the rest of the film is almost perfectly cast. These young actors are all believable as high school football players, especially Lucas Black as wiry quarterback Mike Winchell, who is intense but not particularly bright or articulate.
For most of the film, Friday Night Lights adeptly balances what might be clashing tones. There's plenty of material here that will allow viewers to see the film as an indictment of small-town football culture: the misplaced priorities with the schools' money and time; the physical brutality; a town-wide cultural emphasis that makes senior year of high school the peak of one's life and a memory to obsess over into dead-end adulthood. Friday Night Lights doesn't connect the dots for viewers, but it offers plenty of evidence that many of these players aren't prepared for life after football precisely because the football obsession has corrupted their education.
At the same time, Friday Night Lights is true to the real-time emotions of these characters, which is appropriate. These kids may be under so much pressure that, as one says to another, they don't feel like they're 17, but they still want to win the game. The film is too empathetic to not get caught up in those game-day emotions.
There are two kinds of great movies that take sports as their subject. There are great movies that just happen to be about sports (Hoop Dreams, Bull Durham, Breaking Away). And there great sports movies (Hoosiers towers over the competition here) well-made, satisfyingly formulaic films that appeal primarily to fans of the particular sport. Friday Night Lights is very much the latter, and as ambitious as Berg's filmmaking is, ultimately that's all it's trying to be.
Friday Night Lights spends so much time on the field that it restricts its appeal primarily to football fans. (My football-illiterate wife enjoyed the film but got lost during the game scenes, for instance.) Perhaps for that reason Berg doesn't have the guts to challenge those fans. Friday Night Lights loses its balance at the very end, when it offers an endorsement of scholastic football culture using the familiar character-building and nostalgia-based clichés that the film's partisan adults would likely spout on sports-talk radio. To suggest otherwise that it's wrong to put kids through this gauntlet of physical violence and psychological pressure and that the obsessiveness is likewise harmful to the communities that foster it is an option the film ultimately rejects. It's certainly a message that the football fans capable of making Friday Night Lights a hit don't want to hear.
What the Bleep Do We Know!? asks more questions than just about any film in recent memory, but all those questions seem to be wrapped up in the titular interrogative: What the #$*! do we know? Without ruining the ending, I think I can safely reveal the answer to this question. This answer, my beloved readership, is nothing.
I approached this film with a great deal of curiosity, as it has received very mixed reviews and very differing viewpoints on what it is actually about. The consensus, I gathered, was that it had something to do with quantum physics or is that metaphysics? And that it was a peculiar mix of documentary and fictive storytelling. Sweet. And that it had Marlee Matlin in it, the beautiful deaf actress who won an Oscar for her leading performance in 1986's Children of a Lesser God. I've always enjoyed her work, so I figured that whatever What the Bleep offers in the way of mumbo-jumbo would at least be offset by the lovely Matlin.
For the first 15 minutes or so, What the Bleep is a good deal like what I'd expect a PBS documentary to be like. It hurtles you through space, while disconnected heads of scientists whiz by, spouting babble about quantum physics and the nature of matter and time and the connections between human personality and the substantive universe. Yikes! Where's Marlee Matlin? Heeeeelp!
But soon What the Bleep settles down a little, and I was able to follow the chorus of doctors, theologians, eggheads, and thinkers who share their thoughts on the nature of the universe and the relationship among matter, the mind, our feelings, and destiny.
Matlin plays Amanda, a photographer trying to get on with her life after catching her husband in an adulterous position shortly after their wedding. She has a zany best friend and a horny boss, and, before long, we even get to see how her relationship with them is somehow connected to every other particle in existence and how even those particles may not even exist. Did you know that all of the atoms in matter sometimes don't exist? They vanish. Not all at once but here and there. They kind of just disappear for a little while and then reappear shortly later. Where do they go? To some other dimension, where other people who look just like us are wondering where those particles are slipping off to? Remember that Star Trek episode where the transporter sent Kirk and everybody to an almost-identical universe where the crew of the Enterprise was bad and Spock has a goatee? It's like that.
In between talking-head segments, we see Amanda trying to get through the day despite a raging headache and the normal irritations. Being a scorned wife, she hates photographing weddings, but on this extra-cosmic day, she is asked to do it by Horny Boss and must oblige. At the wedding (and aided by numerous alcoholic beverages and the flirtations of a gentleman admirer), Amanda sees the documentarians' theories in practice. Her drunkenness gives way to computer-generated animations that illustrate the nature of free will over the chemical processes of our brains and the relationship among atoms, molecules, something called peptides, and how we communicate with each other. Each emotion is represented by a CGI blob with its own personality, and before long, they are wreaking havoc on this festive, Polish wedding to the tune of Robert Palmer's Addicted to Love. I've been to some weird weddings, but this one really does stand apart.
It's hard to prescribe an audience for this film. The scientific lexicon is a little thick for the average moviegoer (which is probably exactly why they should see it), and the science isn't quite challenging enough for science-minded individuals. There's some talk of God but not a thorough spiritual exploration. In fact, I would have loved for the film to focus on one of its three main ingredients: quantum physics, biology, and the omnipresence of God. Alas, all three are mercurially bounced around with a few strong connections made but not enough. Matlin gives a brave performance, but the thin drama surrounding it is directed by a trio of helmers more interested in electrons than intentions. And why would anyone want to release a movie about this, anyway? Why isn't this on PBS? It probably is on PBS, and a new audience needs to understand something about how the universe works and how it might work. But hey, what the #$*! do I know? n