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Damned United, The
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by MP Bartley

"It's not the greatest sports movie ever made. But it's in the top one."
4 stars

I imagine that sports films can be tough sells overbroad where what seem to be simple and logical rules and regulations become incomprehensible jargon for the uncomprehending. Perhaps that's why the best sports films, then, are those that eschew the intricacies of the sport and focus instead on the human story beneath. For example, I don't understand and don't care to understand the complexities of American football, but feel very confident in saying that Friday Night Lights is still a magnificent film. The Damned United treads the same path, set in the world of 1970s football (or soccer, of whatever the hell you damn Yanks call it), but really being about one man's obsession with fighting the world around him and taming the team he despises the most.

England, 1974 and ex-Derby County manager, Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), has stunned the world of football by agreeing to take over as manager of Leeds United, the current dominant force of English football. This is a controversial move because not only is the departing Leeds' manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), a man despised entirely by Clough, but Clough has made no secret of his deep dislike of Leeds United and their brutal, tough style of play that has won them trophies, but few friends. Or, as Clough likes to call it, it's just plain cheating as he has chided them over and over again in the preceeding months.

Some would consider this volatile mix as an impossible combination, but not Clough. He's a man who barges through life on bravado and confidence - some say arrogance. He's already achieved the near impossible by taking Derby County from the lower divisions of the football leagues to the top title in the country, before being unseated by Leeds. His star status as a big celebrity goes so far as to have Muhammed Ali jokingly challenge him to a fight live on television. There is no more controversial man in football and his mission at Leeds is personal after taking umbrage at what he believes to be a personal insult from Revie at an earlier game years previously. But his barbed comments have not slipped by the Leeds players still hurting from the departure of their beloved Revie, and Clough finds himself trying to quell a mutinous rabble of players, led by captain Billy Bremner (Stephen Graham). But without his long-time friend and number two, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) who sensed the trouble a mile away, can Clough overcome these difficulties and repeat his success at Derby with the team he hates the most?

The uninformed may be wondering just why Brian Clough is deserving of the biopic treatment. Well, essentially, he achieved heights of success both domestically and abroad, that few managers have ever matched since and certainly not with the small teams that he did. An utterly unique one off, he did this whilst also making himself the most entertaining character the game has ever seen. A quick Google search will fill you in on just why he still casts a long shadow across the game. I'll say now in the issue of fairness that there's probably no-one I admire as much as Clough, for numerous reasons, not just football. However, if anything, that has probably made The Damned United's success even more impressive - I was ready to give this film a kicking if it didn't do him justice.

The Damned United deserves credit for not just pitching itself squarely to football fans. Clearly, fans of the sport and particularly those who know their history, will get more out of the film, such as small references to other players and managers of the time mentioned in casual conversation. However, these references are just dressing on the bigger picture within the film, a picture that should ensure that it has wider appeal than you may think. Essentially, it's a film of one man biting off more than he can chew, but still coming back for more. Taking a dual-chronological approach we see Clough's rise at Derby, all the while sowing the seeds of his own acrimonious departure, and his battle at Leeds to install his own belief and philosophy as to how the game should be played.

It's a theme and approach that is relevant to any sport you care to mention, and its focus on the relationships between Clough and Taylor and Clough and Revie transcends the genre to something more universal. Clough and Taylor work wonders together; Taylor with the eye for an unappreciated player, and Clough the talent for filling the player with the confidence to achieve the previously thought impossible. But as much as the two depend on each other, they don't always pull in the same direction and the fiery relationship between the two men in the emotional crux of the film. Likewise with Revie, the proverbial itch that Clough can't scratch, he's cast as the villain that keeps Clough's ire burning, despite Revie's protestations of innocence. Revie has only a handful of scenes throughout the film, but his presence constantly hangs over the film instead, seemingly mocking Clough at every turn, driving him even more stubbornly on.

Hooper's direction is astute enough to take these two relationships and dig deep into what is still one of the most fascinating stories in football, yet still keep it accessible to the uninformed or mildly curious. He has a wonderful eye for the world of 1970s sports, all muddy colours and brutal challenges. The contrast between today's ultra-trained and ultra-healthy athletes and the past era's sportsmen couldn't be better highlighted than the scene of Clough laying out the player's necessary half-time props - a fresh towel, an orange and an ashtray. And there are scenes that resonate for fans of any sport - bitter, bloody battles in downpours of rain; Clough, racked with nerves, pacing his office during a big game and only relying on the roar of the crowd outside to gage whether his team or winning or not and long, dark nights of the soul where self-doubt keeps sleep from the door. Hooper has the soul of the film right and has the perfect eye for it too, giving the film a better flow than its bitty screenplay deserves, and superbly mixing recreations of famous games with actuality footage.

A large part of the soul of the film belongs to the trio of terrific central performances at the heart of it. Meaney is absolutely uncanny as Revie, and Spall is excellent too as a man content to live in the shadow of another, but bullish about his true worth. Sheen, however, will quite deservedly steal the plaudits dished out. After already essaying Tony Blair and David Frost, Sheen turns his mimicry onto one of the most recogniseable British sporting figures of all time. He doesn't look a great deal like Clough, but nails the nasal, cajoling burr of his voice, the utter convinction in his own brilliance and the cocky mannerisms when he knows the camera is on him. But The Damned United is not just concerned with Clough's public persona. It peeks into the self-doubt, jealousies and flaws of the man and Sheen sinks into the role with relish (Sheen is quickly becoming the best working English actor today, but I'd love to see him get an equally meaty fictional role where he doesn't have to rely on his skills of impersonation).

Initially, I was a little disappointed that Sheen didn't really suggest the charisma of Clough, the charisma that transformed journeyman players into the best team in the land, but on reflection, that's not a judgement on Sheen's performance, but more to do with the fact that if the charisma of someone like Clough could be mimicked easily, there'd be a lot more like him, and there isn't. It's impossible to capture the lightning nature of Clough's personality, and The Damned United and Sheen do something more interesting instead - make him a three dimensional person and craft a heartfelt and funny film of ego, jealousy, success and failure.

There are, of course, moments clearly fictional - a very public plea for forgiveness has had people who knew Clough snorting in disbelief - yet the controversy of David Peace's book, that had him sued by an ex-Leeds player and the film snubbed by Clough's family, has been toned down. The film courses with a genuine love for the game and a respectfully critical eye for Clough himself.

Those who know their football will already know that the film finishes at what is only the halfway point of Clough's managerial career. Those who don't will find themselves illuminated at the end of just how highly he is still held in regard. Personally, I was left eager for more from Sheen, Spall and Hooper - surely Clough: The Forest Years isn't too much to ask for?

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originally posted: 05/20/09 18:06:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/22/11 Annie G A very enjoyable sport movie, if you feel the need for yet another one. 4 stars
3/07/10 HamIAm An unexpected moving and delightful film, surprisingly moving and entertaining. 5 stars
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  DVD: 23-Feb-2010

  27-Mar-2009 (15)

  DVD: 23-Feb-2010

Directed by
  Tom Hooper

Written by
  Peter Morgan

  Jim Broadbent
  Colm Meaney
  Michael Sheen
  Timothy Spall

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