America and England don't see eye to eye on a few things. What we call soccer, the English call football. We don't pay much attention to that sport, but the English follow it with a religious fervor. It's kind of like how some Oklahomans approach college football. It's serious business.
Based on actual events and a book by David Peace, The Damned United gives American film goers the opportunity to see how the English make a sports film compared to the ones we make (you know, those unbearable saccharine, feel-good sports films such as the recent release The Blind Side). The Damned United is not only entertaining, it's a refreshingly unsentimental look into the world of 1970s English soccer.
Brian Clough is one cocky bastard. He's a walking sneer, always ready with a quip, a putdown and a one-liner that lets everyone around him know just how astonishing he is. All eyes on Brian Clough, please. Brian Clough is also a winner. He's done miraculous things as the coach at Derby County and he's ready to do more. It is 1974 and Clough's just been named manager of the Leeds United soccer team, defending champions of the English Premier League. Clough is about to embark on a tumultuous journey into the abyss, and it's not going to be a pretty sight.
The Leeds soccer club had a reputation; and the opening credits of the film tell us what we need to know with grainy, archival footage of the rough and tumble, early 1970s brand of soccer they liked to play. It was gritty, violent, hard-nosed and vicious with cheap shots, dives to trick referees and fists/elbows a-plenty. This was the style that Leeds adopted and they took no prisoners. And they won. A lot.
This style of play was the off-shoot of previous manager Don Revie. Brian Clough loathed Revie and the Leeds style of play. It was cheating and unpleasant to Clough and he let everyone know it. These players he detested and verbally whipped in the media, and while standing in front of them, would now be under his leadership. It was a nightmarish match from the start. When the Leeds team starts the season in a severe struggle to not only win games but to score goals, Clough enters the perfect storm of pressure: hated by players, owners, fans and media in equal measure.
The film bounces back and forth between time periods, as we see Clough in 1974 while at Leeds, and a few years earlier as he begins to rise up the Premier League ladder.
Non-linear films have to be careful when they jump from the present to the past repeatedly. There's a precarious balance of not staying too long in one period and losing the momentum of the story. The Damned United flows nicely and doesn't have this problem. Each leap back (or forward) worked in layering extra depth of character that wouldn't have been there had the film taken place chronologically.
Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) plays Brian Clough and he's revelatory in this role. He is arrogant and his ego runs amok; he's vulnerable and sheepishly silent. It's a superb, lively performance. Sheen taps not only into Clough's unbearable cockiness but he manages to convey the fact that this is sheer bluff. Underneath the surface, Clough is a cauldron, where the fear of failure and his destructive obsession with Revie is unbridled. Clough is all bravado and bluster; Sheen lets us see all the layers to this complex person and his performance anchors the film.
The supporting cast is up to the challenge of what Sheen is doing with Clough. Sheen's exchanges with the chairman of Derby County (Jim Broadbent) were terrific. Broadbent is just a dependable, professional character actor and is always ready to steal some scenes in whatever he does. I wouldn't be disappointed if he was in practically every single movie I watch. Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney give solid support in the other major roles in the film, but mostly they are lost in Sheen's wake as Clough.
One of my favorite things about The Damned United is how it captures the extreme ups and downs of soccer in England during the 1970s. There's rapturous joy one moment, severe melancholy the next. Clough rides an emotional roller coaster. It's a precarious slope at the top and all-consuming disaster when at the bottom.
In the early 1970s, professional soccer was still very much directed toward the working class (as professional sports in America were as well), and The Damned United accurately captures that element. We see the dark-shadowed board rooms and cramped locker rooms with paint peeling off of dirty walls. The soccer pitch is muddy and missing grass. There's very little glamour for the majority of these teams. Leeds is glamorous but it's an idealized fantasy, impossible to attain, for Clough or any of their hard-core working class fans.
I also loved the look of the film. Director Tom Hooper has given it that 1970s feel (always a good thing) that matches the era it represents. The film is blanketed with the tint of England. The colors are washed out and soft, the skies are grey. A brief scene on a Spanish beach is so bright that it's almost a relief to get back to the muted look of England.
The Damned United is a wonderful example of how to make a film about sports and not fill it with the syrupy, over-the-top uplifting message that most American sports films embrace. I'll take a film like The Damned United over one of those American films any day of the week. It's honest, well-crafted, lovingly detailed and has one of the best acting performances of 2009 in Michael Sheen. Whether it is called soccer or football, it's a good movie, and that's plenty enough for me.
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