It would be a tremendous shame if “The Damned United,” the latest collaboration between screenwriter Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen, were deemed merely a good sports movie. This is not a genre film. Football—soccer in this country—is not the subject matter so much as a conduit to the film’s study of ego and relationships. Previous collaborators on “Frost/Nixon” (in which Sheen played television presenter David Frost) and “The Special Relationship,” “The Deal,” and “The Queen” (all of which featured the Welsh actor as Tony Blair), Morgan and Sheen now embark on a very different kind of period piece.
“The Damned United” is the story of six years in the life of the late Brian Clough (Sheen), a soccer manager legendary for his success on the pitch as well as his penchant for the irreverent sound bite and a tendency, like Charles de Gaulle and Michael Jordan, to see his team as an extension of himself. Loosely based on the novel of the same name by David Peace, the film focuses on Clough’s ill-fated 44-day tenure as manager of Leeds United—“The Damned United” of the title and the most successful English soccer team of the time. Interspersed are flashbacks to his years coaching Derby County, where he built his reputation as the best young manager in the English game.
As someone who has made his name in political films—in particular playing Tony Blair, a man to whom he bears a distinct physical resemblance—Sheen is a somewhat unlikely choice to play Clough, a working-class Geordie (from Middlesbrough in the North of England) who played as a center-forward before injuries led him to management. Rather than attempt to mimic the mannerisms of the real Brian Clough, Sheen instead engenders his own impressionist rendering of the manager’s persona. In some respects, however, Morgan and Sheen stick closely to the original—after all, Brian Clough was one of the most quotable figures in sports. Several of the film’s best lines—“I wouldn’t say I’m the best manager in the country, but I’m in the top one”—are not Morgan’s but Clough’s own.
Sheen’s Clough is not only arrogant but also insecure, desperate for public adulation, and obsessed with outdoing Don Revie (Colm Meaney), his predecessor as manager of Leeds United. Clough’s vendetta against Revie, a well-known historical fact, is nonetheless provided a fictional justification in the film. Soon after Clough has taken over as manager at then-lowly Second Division team Derby County, the First Division champions Leeds United come to Derby for an FA Cup game. In some of the film’s most affecting scenes, Clough and his staff spend weeks trying to get their pitiful pitch and stadium in a state fit for the visiting superstars, most notably Revie, Clough’s managerial icon. Yet when the day of the big game arrives, Don Revie blithely ignores Clough, refusing even to shake his hand. While purely a creation of Morgan’s script, the anecdote effectively grounds Clough’s real-life resentment of Revie.
The ensuing preoccupation with Revie explains many of Clough’s actions throughout the rest of the film. Like Paul Ashworth in “Fever Pitch” (1997; not the Jimmy Fallon movie about the Red Sox), Clough is consumed by soccer to the detriment of his mental and physical health and the well-being of those around him. But the true emotional and thematic centerpiece of “The Damned United” is the relationship between Clough and his assistant manager, Peter Taylor (brilliantly played by Timothy Spall, best known for his role as Peter Pettigrew in the “Harry Potter” movies). Taylor is the antithesis to Clough—quiet, low-key, and behind the scenes while Clough is an inveterate and foul-mouthed attention-seeker. Yet the two men are devoted to, and utterly dependent on, each other. Clough’s expanding ego leads to a rift with Taylor, and Clough moves to Leeds United on his own. Much of his failure there is explained by his loneliness in Taylor’s absence, and when he is sacked 44 days later, in the film’s most poignant moment, he drives down to Brighton to reconcile with his partner.
“The Damned United,” by the mere nature of its theme, is unlikely to attract American audiences. Despite the growing interest in soccer in this country, a film about Leeds United in the 1970s, featuring faded stars whose names are now familiar only to Leeds fans, is a minor enthusiasm. After their explorations of epochal moments in British and American history in “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon,” this is a decidedly quiet triumph from Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen. Yet it underscores their masterful ability to bring characters and events from our recent history to complex, sympathetic, and gripping life–a skill unmatched in contemporary cinema.
—Staff writer Keshava D. Guha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.