It takes audacity to make a sports movie about one of the most spectacular failures in UK football history and I’m glad that director Tom Hooper took the plunge. The Damned United is gripping, heartbreaking, maddening, uplifting and ultimately exhilarating. You’ll be entranced by this picture whether you’re intimately familiar with its back story or whether you’ve never watched a soccer game in your life. The Damned United is just that great.
Michael Sheen plays Brian Clough, a fiery and brilliant football manager who follows his triumph of taking Derby County’s club from the depths of the Second Division to the peak of the First, then onward to managing perennial powerhouse Leeds United. That description makes his career arc seem much smoother than it actually was. The film’s version of Brian Clough seems dead set on being his own worst enemy, undermining all of his triumphs on the pitch by being as humongous a jerk as humanly possible to the people around him, from Derby’s Chairman of Directors (Jim Broadbent) to his longtime managing partner, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall).
Michael Sheen’s performance is nothing short of explosive. In his hands, Brian Clough is a live wire, capable of empassioned brilliance while possessed of such hubris that his fall from grace seems like a foregone conclusion. Sheen finds all the perfect pitch for Clough for every extreme Clough veers toward, making him utterly loathsome in one scene and strangely loveable in the next, and he’s able to do it convincingly, without making Clough look like a walking contradiction or an over-the-top cartoon.
As good as Sheen is, Spall is an absolute revelation in this picture. Spall’s probably best recognized from his portrayals of grotesques and misfits that are relegated to the corners of the Harry Potter movies and Disney’s Enchanted. He blazes like a supernova in The Damned United, crafting a performance that’s every bit as brilliant as Sheen’s, offering support and loyalty to Clough along with a wickedly keen eye for talent that allows Clough to build a soccer team for the ages in Derby. It’s a deft, funny and touching performance that leaves me hoping that this picture got enough attention to let him grab the spotlight in future films.
When The Damned United isn’t focused on the relationship between Clough and Taylor, it zeroes in on the enmity between Clough and Don Revie (Colm Meaney), Leeds United’s former manager. From what Clough perceives as a monstrously contemptuous brush-off in 1968 to Clough’s crash and burn in 1974, Clough bears his hatred of Revie like a crown of thorns, dedicating himself to showing up Revie on and off the pitch at every opportunity. Peter Morgan’s script, adapted from David Peace’s novel depicts Clough as a creature of monumental ego, accepting as axiomatic that he is the blindingly glorious center of the football universe, never forgetting a slight but fiercely loyal to his friends.
As long as he doesn’t get the notion that they’ve turned on him.
So how close is The Damned United to actual events? Beats me. In 1974, I was more pre-occupied with Super Friends than sports. Plenty of people, from Clough’s family members to BBC sports analysts have pointed out the liberties taken by the novel and the film, though. My guess is that the movie is every bit as accurate as any of Oliver Stone’s biopics. Feel free to let loose with the flames.
Still, taken strictly as entertainment, The Damned United is utterly gripping. Clough may not know when to keep his stupid mouth shut, but he’s absolutely compelling, and the chemistry that Sheen and Spall share is a thing of beauty. While it never made waves on this side of the Atlantic, The Damned United is a sleeper that’s well worth discovering, an uncommonly rare sports movie that isn’t a manipulative exercise that relies on a “big game at the end” to generate drama. In breaking from that tradition, The Damned United becomes one of the most exciting and moving dramas that the sports sub-genre has ever produced.