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2009 enjoyed a major success with a team sports movie -- it was called Invictus and it was directed by Clint Eastwood. Sometime in the late summer I listened to an NPR show about a British football movie called The Damned United. The film had already played in the United Kingdom, and the discussion made it sound as though distributors were unsure if it was suitable for American audiences. The film focuses on an English football team manager from the 1970s who is a household name in that country but is more or less unknown here: a cocky, mouthy and ambitious ex- player named Brian Clough. Brits loved Clough's ever-optimistic attitude along with his sometimes-arrogant opinions.
The Damned United isn't about playing the game, and unlike most sports pictures it doesn't end in a big match. It's about a special personality whose victories and defeats don't really happen on the playing field. Sports movie fans wanting rah-rah emotionalism and transcendent success in action won't find it in this picture, which instead finds its thrills in some really entertaining character clashes.
The picture is definitely a star vehicle for Michael Sheen, an actor more or less introduced to American audiences in The Queen and who further impressed us in Frost/Nixon. After cleaning up the image of a Prime Minister and creating an interesting portrait of a puffed-up TV personality, Sheen is even more impressive as a sports figure in a game ruled by fierce club rivalries and enormous egos.
Almost all the action is of the "behind the scenes" variety. Actual games are pictured mostly in repurposed vintage film and video, with text titles added to tell us where we're at and who's playing. The majority of the games are barely glimpsed. Director Tom Hooper's camera instead skips to the post-match locker rooms, showing the final score superimposed on the screen.
Peter Morgan is the screenwriter of The Queen and Frost/Nixon. His script for this picture also focuses on a clash between two competitive personalities. Manager Brian Clough's story is split into two intercut halves -- his 1968 effort to energize a team doing poorly at the bottom of the second division, and his disastrous 1974 stint as manager of the league's top team, the Leeds United. In the older segment, Clough (Sheen) pours his seemingly unlimited energy into the losing Derby County team, putting up with slights from the famous Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney). His efforts go for naught until he defies his boss Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent) and hires new, expensive and controversial players. The team improves steadily, winning notoriety for Clough. By Brian's side is his loyal co-manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). Clough courts fame through flashy TV and radio interviews; Taylor remains relatively anonymous.
Brian Clough's near-fatal flaw is his determination to bring down the arrogant Revie, who came from the same neighborhood but refuses to acknowledge the younger manager. Clough also believes that Revie runs a dirty game, encouraging his players to cheat and play unnecessarily rough. In an important playoff, Clough unwisely goes against Longson's advice and fronts his top players against Leeds United. Sustaining several injuries, Derby is in no shape to play the more important follow-up title match. Clough overplays his hand, offering his and Taylor's resignations -- without telling Taylor. To his horror Derby accepts the resignations; Taylor is furious.
The pair has accepted a managerial stint with a "Tory" team from the posh south, when a shakeup at Leeds United changes everything. Don Revie takes over management of the English World Cup team, and Leeds offers Brian Clough the job of replacing him. Still obsessed with his own image, Clough jumps ship on his prior commitment. Taylor refuses to come with him and the best managerial partnership in football dissolves acrimoniously.
Up in Leeds Clough runs into nothing but trouble. He alienates his employers by broadcasting his opinion that Leeds plays dirty and that the beloved manager Revie was a bad role model. He gets nowhere with his new players when he tells them to chuck their previous awards because they weren't fairly earned. His own ideas of sportsmanship are ignored. Without Peter Taylor's help, Clough mainly makes people angry. His new players would rather lose than see him succeed.
The Damned United's fascinating characters keep a tight hold on our interest. Clough and Revie are gentleman managers with the instincts of street fighters, and the clips of brutal fighting and cheating on the field show us that the game was once a lot rougher (here in America, our news mostly showed us huge brawls in the bleachers). Brian Clough is a very entertaining guy, always sticking his neck out to make a good impression, hiring players without telling his employers that he's spending their money, and courting the press and TV by filling interviews with controversial statements. We're told that he was one of the most quoted and well-known media personalities in England, a point proven when the film shows a vintage news clip of boxer Muhammad Ali noting Clough's "big talk" and jokingly warning him that there's not enough room in sports for two big mouths. Clough certainly earns the hatred of Don Revie, a fact driven home when a TV interviewer books Clough right after he's been sacked from a big job and may be finished in football. The interviewer tricks Clough by bringing on Revie at the last moment, forcing the manager to take the defensive as Revie describes him as a disgrace to the sport. (This actual historical confrontation is viewable on YouTube.)
Michael Sheen plays Clough as a supremely confident fellow, an animated self-promoter with so much charm that it's impossible to dislike him. Even when the public feels that Clough has screwed up, his popularity isn't affected. Colm Meany is excellent as Don Revie, who is sort of a mystery. Revie is described as a thoughtful manager who takes care of his boys and does meticulous research before games, but Clough protests that the rough play and dirty tricks (a Leeds player specializes in faking being clipped by opposing players) are symptomatic of Revie's managerial style.
More questions are raised by the fine performance of Timothy Spall (Sweeney Todd; Topsy-Turvy) as Clough's assistant Peter Taylor. The movie's Taylor is a talented fellow typed as an unassertive sidekick, yet footage included of the real Taylor reveals him to be a dapper fellow perfectly capable of representing himself. A telling bit shows an interviewer asking the real Taylor a question. When Clough tries to answer for him, Taylor politely stands up for himself. A final reconciliation scene, with an epilogue covering the later success of the Clough-Taylor partnership, gives The Damned United a warm send-off.
The Damned United is an odd sports picture. It has no love story (Clough and Taylor are each happily married) and doesn't fall back on exciting sports action to keep the audience entertained. I was thoroughly involved in its story and can recommend it heartily.
Sony Pictures Classics' DVD of The Damned United is an okay transfer of a film shot mostly under overcast skies, with men practicing in what must be very cold conditions; a lot of the color is in the actor's red cheeks. A Blu-ray is also available. Although I was impressed by the film's atmosphere, I've had no contact with the sports culture pictured and don't know how accurate it might be.
Some good extras are present to help out clueless Yanks. A commentary with actor Sheen, producer Andy Harries and director Hooper is present, as is a making-of piece, some deleted snips of Sheen recreating Clough's interviews and a further piece on Sheen's effort to embody the controversial, beloved manager. The most interesting extra for the uninitiated is The Changing Game: Football in the Seventies, a long interview featurette in which ex- players and other insiders discuss how the teams functioned, how rough the matches were back then (with clips) and how much TV money has changed the nature of the sport. One player tells us that because of the new international nature of the game, the players on an English team of today may be mostly foreigners.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Damned United Blu-ray rates:
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