There aren't too many films about soccer (or football, in this case) that make people jump up and down about, and when one is released, those of us that enjoy the sport might nudge everyone to see it, to the point of being enthusiastically irrational. That said, any time you can get a group of critically praised actors appearing in one film about the sport, then being rational does go out the window. Such is the case for my enthusiasm about The Damned United.
Tom Hooper (John Adams) directed the film which Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) adapted from David Peace's novel. The story chronicles the tenure of Brian Clough at the Leeds United football club in England. The tenure is notable not only for its length (44 days), but Clough, a rising star in English football management, was replacing Don Revie (Colm Meaney, (Con Air), who was going on to become the English National Team coach after building a dynasty with Leeds. Clough was successful at Derby County, who had gone from the English Second Division to winning the Football League Championship in six years (if a AAA baseball club became a Major League team and won the World Series, how fast would that take?). But he had a seemingly long-standing grudge with Revie, with the latter being oblivious to it. This would manifest itself during Clough's time at Leeds.
It didn't take long either; after Leeds won the League Championship in 1974 and Revie left for the England job, Clough came in and told the players to disregard their earlier achievements because they were not won honestly. This rankled the players, particularly their captain Billy Bremner (Stephen Graham, Public Enemies). That said, Clough seemed to have some justifiable claims. English football in the 1970s was far more rugged, even thuggish, and many players including Bremner symbolized this play. Clough envisioned a more fundamentally sound possession style of play, and it was something that the Leeds team was not accustomed to. That and Clough's exceeding brash and abrasive demeanor were factors in his dismissal.
However, The Damned United does more than chronicle 44 chaotic days, they help shine a light on how Clough was able to become successful, and it was in no small part to his assistant and friend Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall, The Last Hangman). Taylor had an exceptionally keen eye for talent that could be acquired for a football club. While the price of bringing in players ruffled ownership's feathers at Derby County (Sam Longson, Derby's Chairman, is played by Oscar-winner James Broadbent), the results spoke for themselves. Combined with Clough's passion they were a quietly formidable duo, with Taylor bringing in key players to fit the system, and Clough's "coaching them up" to their fullest.
Like most great pairings, there was a falling out between the two, surrounding Clough's desire to coach Leeds and exceed Revie's accomplishments, and Taylor's desire to be part of a more modest club. Clough believed his press clippings and when he went to Leeds, without Taylor's steadying eye, this seemed to sink Clough's managerial term before it started. In a postscript outside of his Leeds term, Clough and Taylor reunited at another English club (Nottingham Forest) at took the club to previously unseen heights in England and in European play.
While the understandable focus of The Damned United may be on Clough's infatuation and seething hatred of Revie for what Revie's Leeds teams did to Clough's Derby squads in years past, the film quietly shows you how the friendship between Clough and Taylor holds up (and eventually falls down) through the years. Hooper employs a tactic by telling two different stories from two periods simultaneously through the film, and does so in such a way that makes it easy to follow and not get confused. Additionally, The Damned United is a soccer film with very little soccer in it; there are portions of games that are practically shot but the bulk of the soccer action is carried by newsreel footage.
It doesn't hurt that in Clough, Sheen carries the bluster and the arrogance rather well, and doesn't impersonate Clough as much as he inhabits him. Countered with Spall's performance they present the fire and ice balance that had to be pulsing through football discussion shows in the '70s and '80s. Spall does an outstanding job of emitting strength and presence by doing very little, and for my money he's one of the more underrated actors today, perhaps dismissed because he's appeared in the Harry Potter franchise, but then again what British actor HASN'T?
All in all, The Damned United is less a soccer film and more about two men that happen to be in soccer, and whose success in it has as much to do with their chemistry off the field as their results on it. Combined with excellent performances by Sheen and Spall, it's great viewing, regardless of your thoughts on the sport, for the characters in it are compelling to watch.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The AVC-encoded 1.85:1 widescreen presentation of The Damned United is in 1080p high definition and looks very good. The film juggles several different looks in the film; the newsreel black and whites, a drab, almost colorless palate when Clough is on the practice fields of Leeds and Derby, and the vivid oranges and yellows that only '70s-era interiors could provide. Any image softness or overblown whites appear to be a creative decision and one that works out fine. There isn't a lot of image detail or multi-dimensional feel to this one, but there's no need for it, and there was no plan to win the viewer over with breathtaking cinematography shots of England's northern regions. This is a solid-looking film.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround sound option is additionally good. During the filmed soccer sequences, you can subwoofer engagement on each tackle and you feel the rain through the front and rear speakers. There's a few songs peppered through the film and they sound clear, and comparing this soundtrack to the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, things sounds tighter and clearer on the TrueHD track, with much more room on the soundstage to play with. Dialogue sounds strong and accurate through the center channel as well. Sony does justice to the film with this soundtrack.
There has been a decent amount of thought put into making this disc a well-rounded package, starting with a commentary from Hooper, Sheen and producer Andy Harries. While Hooper discusses what scenes were digitally enhanced, or when Harries covers the more production-centric portions of the film, Sheen shares some of his approach to playing Clough and the information he gained about him when researching the role. The trio also recalls story ideas that came up in earlier drafts of the screenplay to boot. They all have fun watching the movie and sharing stories amongst each other, and it's a nice track to listen to.
Afterwards, nine deleted scenes (34:08) include optional commentary from Hooper and are substantial; they show a little more Clough bluster, including his first few actions when taking over the Leeds position and a subplot involving Clough's Derby transfers upon their arrival at Leeds. Lots of good stuff here, but it's easy to see why it was cut; it distracted from the story at hand. Moving on, "Clough-isms" are four television segments that Sheen dramatically shot as Clough for the film (8:58). "Perfect Pitch" (16:26) is the making-of look at the film, featuring interviews from Hooper and Sheen on their thoughts about Clough and the story, and more production-based things like casting athletic actors as player in the film, locations that still look like '70s-era English football, and so on. "Creating Clough" (10:17) solely focuses on Sheen's approach to portraying Clough and the reason why Hooper wanted him for the role, and Sheen continues providing information on Clough, his relationship with Taylor and rivalry with Revie. Clearly, he takes a serious in-depth approach to any role he plays, and this is a nice insight to it.
"Remembering Brian" (9:34) includes thoughts and anecdotes about Clough, with some recollections by retired Leeds players who played under Clough. Rounding out the disc is "The Changing Game" (19:12), which examines English football in the '70s and Leeds domination in it. Some of said players recall their relationships with Revie and Clough, and the larger influences of football at the time, like the lack of transferred/acquired European players. Clough's contribution to the game is discussed, both for the time Clough introduced it, and how much it has been adopted now. All of the supplements paint a detailed picture as to the times these events happened.
The Damned United has an excellent performance from Michael Sheen, telling a story about a man who will remind American viewers of the different colorful yet successful baseball managers of the '70s and '80s. But it's also a gently poignant story about the relationship Brian Clough and Peter Taylor had and the success they shared when they worked with one another. Definitely worth renting with an eye towards purchase if you're a fan of Sheen, or of movies that have proper football in them.