A film review by Craig J. Koban December 29, 2009

Rank:  #22


2009, R, 97 mins.

Brian Clough: Michael Sheen / Peter Taylor: Timothy Spall / Don Revie: Colm Meaney / Sam Longson: Jim Broadbent

Directed by Tom Hooper / Written by Peter Morgan, based on the book The Damned Utd. by David Peace

"I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business.  But I was in the top one."

- Brian Clough

THE 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.   

On 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.   

Yet, 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 stubbornness.   Yet, 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. 

Of 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. 

After 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 passion.  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. 

THE 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 team. 

Directed 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.   

Michael 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. 

The 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.  And 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.”  

You just got to love that type of blustery, matter-of-factness that slices through the BS.

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