The Damned United Directed by: Tom Hooper Cast: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney Running Time: 1 hr 50 mins Rating: R Release Date: October 2, 2009
PLOT: Brian Clough (Sheen), a successful manager of a growing football team in England, is hired to manage his once rival team to the top of the ranks.
WHO'S IT FOR? Fans of the sport who are familiar with Brian Clough certainly owe it to themselves to see a movie based more on his ego than his win records. But for most of us (in America, anyway), those who can appreciate a strong character study should take a chance on the type of sports film not often made stateside.
EXPECTATIONS: Before going into The Damned United, I only knew it was about soccer (or futbol to be geographically correct). I assumed that this was going to be an entertaining but crass movie, a rollicking, somewhat typical sports flick. I was very wrong.
ACTORS: Michael Sheen as Brian Clough: This is not the leader we have been accustomed to from sports films. He may have the bruised heart of an underdog, but new head coach of the Leeds football team Brian Clough covers his loserdom with a thick layer of borderline arrogance. But before this characer becomes the Michael Scott (or David Brent, if you want to talk European) of soccer management, Sheen presents Clough as the pretty cocky arse the man truly is (granted, he is a driven fellow). At the same time, Sheen is able to play even the most sincere corners of Clough with the equal effortlessness. Should the Oscars be light on nominations for best actor this year, Sheen would be a top contender. Score: 9
Timothy Spall as Peter Taylor: When Clough makes a mess with teammates or team owners, Peter Taylor comes in and tries to sweep things up. Spall plays the assistant manager with the same sweetness that Sheen puts into the lead, but has none of the attitude. Certainly a supporting role with less of an impact on the main story, but it's not any less important. Score: 8
Colm Meaney as Don Rivie: To Clough's ego, this original coach of the Leeds soccer team is a villainous dark cloud. But The Damned United does not submit to this label, and Meaney embodies Rivie tactfully in which we understand where Clough is coming from - but we don't necessarily agree with him. Wonderfully, he is able to create a rivalry with Clough without actually being a black or white bad guy. Score: 9
TALKING: There are some thick English accents, but this isn't like an episode of the BBC version of "The Office", where I wish I had subtitles. Compared to the sports movie screenwriting playbook, there are no big, orchestrated speeches, and whatever rallying of the troops Clough does as a manager is presented genuinely. Score: 8
SIGHTS: Some shots are framed oddly, (those crazy Europeans and their subtext!), but such cinematography is less arrogant and more beneficial to the different experience that is The Damned United. As much as this film is thrilled by the energy of soccer, it doesn't feel the need to show too much on field footage, which is more stock footage than not. Score: 9
SOUNDS: The score is much more predominant than the soundtrack, a fitting choice that is indicative of how this film with story - not just a scripted sports event. Most songs actually used are heard towards the end of the movie, with Fleetwood Mac's "Man of the World" adding a nice touch to a scene in which Clough is brought back down to earth. But David Bowie's "Queen B*tch" gets the final word during the epilogue. Score: 7
BEST SCENE: The first day of practice for the Leeds team under the management of Brian Clough. After he tells his new army of players they've been cheating under the guidance of Don Rivie, it begins a fascinating downward spiral of mutiny that partly makes The Damned United so interesting.
ENDING: Not your typical sports ending, but a great note to leave on nonetheless.
REWATCHABILITY: This is one of those great films that can be re-seen just to explore its awesomeness, or even more so dive deeper into the ambitions of Brian Clough in order to understand him some more.
Dedicated yet stubborn coaches can have irredeemable bad attitudes, and players can sometimes win entire seasons through cheating. The Damned United has a lot of realities to teach the self-absorbed and fluffy glory hound movies of our days, and after this victory for the sports film subgenre, those particular films (that sometimes even have "glory" or "pride" in their dumbed-down titles) might as well resign to being towel boys.
This riveting picture from Tom Hooper (and more notably Frost/Nixon screenwriter Peter Morgan) is a refreshingly honest study of a dedicated manager who lets his ego coach his team; such an ego is fueled by his “personal vendetta” to control the beast that has haunted him for years (Leeds). Morgan brilliantly moves from two eras in Brian Clough’s life, before Leeds and during Leeds, to fully capture the evolution of the likeable man’s disappointing arrogance. Michael Sheen, who carries the film with his classical ease, never has to share the film’s power with his on-screen team, as The Damned United doesn't invest itself in the rather American obsession of unlikely groupings coming together and succeeding. Often captured with cloudy visual tones, the story shows a more than capable manager failing to earn nothing but hatred from his players and their fans. A textual epilogue ends the film on a sunny note, but there is still little to champion here.
However, this is exactly what makes the fascinating drama The Damned United so fantastic - it is the rare breed of underdog that achieves victory without the glory.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10