A film review by Craig J. Koban December 29, 2009
THE DAMNED UNITED
2009, R, 97 mins.
2009, R, 97 mins.
Brian Clough: Michael Sheen / Peter Taylor: Timothy Spall / Don
Revie: Colm Meaney / Sam Longson: Jim Broadbent
"I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one."
- Brian Clough
DAMNED UNITED is a rare breed of sports film in the sense that (a) it
is largely manager and not player centric and (b) it concerns a
manager that, deep down, utterly despises the team he is trying to empower
and rally for the better.
top of that, many other critics have wisely asserted that THE DAMNED UNITED also
may be one of the first to completely subvert the inspirational, underdog
sports genre playbook in one overriding way: it's about a
sports personality that begins on top and then takes a spectacular and
highly publicized career nosedive. It
begins with the obligatory “big game” (actually, make that several
games) and then ends with personal defeat and humiliation.
THE DAMNED UNITED is not really about the game, or the players, or
actually showing them both in any discernible detail (as a matter of fact,
most of the most integral matches in the film are largely never shown).
Instead, the film is more attune at being an investigation into how
the nature of sports and professional rivalries can often have damaging
effects on the personas behind the scenes.
The crucial story thread here concerns the fall from grace and
inevitable rehabilitation of one of the UK’s most iconic, controversial,
and successful soccer managers (or as they properly label it, football), a
man of vivid and colorful arrogance, stern pride, and, yes, a resounding
despite some of his more obvious personal failings, this man did know his
sport through and through and her certainly was passionate about what he
didn’t like in it.
course, I am talking about Brian Clough, a revered footballer turned
manager that gained most of his personal success in the late 60’s and
early 70’s helming Derby County. When
he took over the team he was actually the youngest ever to do so, and his
youthful exuberance, friendly and frank demeanor, and uncensored gumption
made him a fascinating enigma to British soccer fans.
He would take the underdog Derby on to football glory and
supremacy and made no bones about expressing his disdain of some of his opponents, like Leeds United, a squad that
that he believed were plagued with downright hooligans.
a lucrative and triumphant tenure with Leeds, Clough miraculously found
himself taking over the manager’s job of the very team he chastised with a heated and
Leeds would prove to be his managerial Waterloo in the 1970’s, as
his feeble and ill conceived attempts to reshape what he saw as a “dirty” team in his
new image simply did not work, mostly because the rule breaking players
all but swore lifelong oaths to their last manager, Don Revie. Realizing
that he faced an insurmountable task of retrofitting this already winning
– but unsportsmanlike - club, Clough found himself sacked
from his position within a scant 44 days.
Perhaps it had something to do with the notion that he spared no
expense at telling his players on a daily basis how corrupt they were.
Or, deep down, it was largely because Clough simply hated what the
team represented for years.
DAMNED UNITED becomes something more melancholic and tragic than most
conventional sports biopics. The
script by Peter Morgan (yet another – sorry to mix sports metaphors –
solid home run after his work on THE QUEEN and
FROST/NIXON) is based on
the British Novel THE DAMNED UTD. by David Peace, a largely fictional
account based on the author’s interpretation of the larger-than-life
story of Clough’s jubilant rise with Derby and then his thunderous
collapse with Leeds. Yes,
Clough did go on to achieve managerial supremacy post-Leeds (he
would go on to take Nottingham Forrest to back-to-back European Cups, an
achievement that is still considered an incredible benchmark for the
sport). However, it would take
the stinging failures of managing Leeds that acted as a springboard for his personal
change. Ultimately, though, Clough still is considered one of the
greatest English mangers never to have successful managed the England
with a sure-fire precision and a quiet and understated eye for period detail
by Tom Hopper (who recently helmed many of the finest episodes of HBO’s
remarkably assured miniseries, JOHN ADAMS), THE DAMNED UNITED is largely
successful at finding just the right balance between Clough the icon and
Clough the deeply flawed and self-indulgent man.
This persona was great in front of a camera and during an interview and
displayed a lot of charm and spunky panache, but as likeable and
charismatic as Clough is presented in the film, this is not a sugar-coated
portrayal; the foibles and failures of this man are never given neat and
tidy explanations, and part of the pleasure of watching THE DAMNED UNITED
is to see how the direction, writing, and Oscar-caliber performances
contained within all collaborate to define the central ironies and
mysteries of this complicated sports figure.
Sheen, whom has become one of the most reliable and unsung character
actors of his generation, has had the Herculean task of embodying not one,
not two, but now three undisputed Brit celebrity icons in
his last few films: He found just the right modulation and conviction to
play prime Minister Tony Blair in THE QUEEN,
David Frost in FROST/NIXON, and now
Clough here, and the one thing that struck me almost immediately while
watching THE DAMNED UNITED is that he does such a subtle, but commanding,
job of immersing himself in the role of Clough that I almost forgot that
this was the same man who played Blair and Frost.
What’s absolutely intriguing here is that Sheen, although not
looking much like the real Clough, so resolutely inhabits this man that by
the time you see archival footage of the real Clough near the end of the
film, the blur between fiction and reality becomes smaller.
He becomes these people by intently showing these men at the finest
and worst. He suggests something profoundly human in all of these
characters – how initial confidence and cocky bravado can latter morph
into uncertainly and a looming sense of dread.
Few recent performances have done such a bravura job of finding a
happy medium between confidence and nervous apprehension, but Sheen does
so here with stern precision.
other performances are uniformly stellar as well, especially one
by Timothy Spall playing Clough’s long-time and loyal assistant,
Peter Taylor, whom acts as the audiences’ gateway into the
bizarre and contradictory world of Clough.
One of the other pleasures of THE DAMNED UNTIED is to see how his
relationship with Clough is almost a surrogate and platonic marriage,
where the two lash out and reveal their deeper concerns and apprehensions
with the other; Taylor is a nice, quiet tempered, and practical foil to the
tunnel vision and prideful hubris that Clough
demonstrates throughout. Jim
Broadbent is also fine as Sam Longson, the owner of Derby, whose frequent
clashes with Clough during his tenure with derby led to his undoing.
then there is the great Colm Meaney playing former Leeds coach Revie, a god-like
figure to the Leeds players and fans that casts a shadow so insurmountable
over Clough that it all but leads to his early dismissal from the team.
Meaney’s performance is slick, disarming at showing this smug and
self-congratulatory man, and a standoff that he has with Clough
late in the film during an interview is a subversively enjoyable
delight. Not too many sports
film reach a climax that involves two coaches revealing their disdain for
one another on National TV.
Again, it is the smaller and more discrete scenes - and not the perfunctory montages of “big” games - that pack the most emotional wallop. THE DAMNED UNITED reminded me considerably of Clint Eastwood’s decent, but flawed, INVICTUS in the sense that both are about unattainably popular European sports, but THE DAMNED UNITED set itself apart for how much better it avoids watered downed sports clichés and becomes almost an anti-sports film. It also does a much more interesting job of handling the matches themselves. Instead of making painstaking attempts at recreating the games, Hoper shows the mindset of Clough behind closed doors as the contest is on. There is a marvelous scene of introspection that shows Clough during an early match as a manager of Leeds that forces him to remain in the locker room in a fit of agitated anxiety and paranoia as he tries to interpret the cheers of the crowd. I like it when genre films like this avoid the obvious trappings – and enticement – of recreating the classic matches and instead goes for something more engagingly inconspicuous.
The film ends on a note of dour pessimism in the sense that it is suggested that the Leeds players all but sabotaged individual games because of their disdain for Clough and their borderline fanatical devotion to Revie. Clough recently died in 2004 and despite that I believe that the film feels like a sobering, honest, and humanistic portrait of a multi-faceted man, it has not been without controversy (the Clough family declined an invitation to a preview of the film, and have stated that they loathe the whole idea of it). Even though I am no expert on the history of football in England, that my knowledge of Clough’s legacy is sparse at best entering THE DAMNED UNITED, and that, yes, I knew this film to largely be a work of fiction, I nonetheless felt that the film reached a dramatic veracity with the underlining material and never once felt like a cheap, disposable, or audience-pandering sports biopic. In the end, like him or hate him, Clough had an impeachable conviction and nerve, which is on display during an early scene when he first takes over the Leeds players and offers up a pep talk:
“As far as I'm concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals into the biggest fucking dustbin you can find, because you've never won any of them fairly.”
just got to love that type of blustery, matter-of-factness that slices
through the BS.