REVIEW: The Damned United [2009]

“Better go make meself known”

More biography than sports drama, Tom Hooper’s The Damned United becomes so much more than just a chronicle of English soccer in the 1970s. Peter Morgan has made a pretty good career of late by screenwriting true stories to be handled with effectiveness onscreen. This story is no different, even throwing in a unique timeline aspect, showing the audience where Brian Clough has ended up before the many memories that got him there. An overly-ambitious man, Clough generally was able to put his money where his big mouth was, silencing all critics and building a team in Derby, with friend and colleague Peter Taylor, that defied all odds in winning the league championship. That drive for success became rooted in vengeance and rivalry early on though, taking an incident after a game versus Leeds United, something just as much his fault as that of enemy Don Revie, as the motivation to strive, not to be the best, but to beat the best. Never truly seeing the big picture, Clough moved on in his career and made the worst decision he could, taking a job with the team he had built a lifetime of hatred towards, a team that would never have played for him, no matter what.

The success of this film is that it actually hones in on displaying the one failure in Clough’s otherwise stellar career. Sure it shows his early success and epilogues his future accolades, but those things are shown not to build the man up for knighthood. No, they are used to show how large his ego had become, bracing us for his inevitable fall, the plummet he just couldn’t open his eyes to seeing right in front of him. By accepting a job with the team he publicly denounced as cheaters, the club he devoted his career to beating, the end was written on the wall. Overstepping his bounds and giving himself only one choice, he went into Leeds thinking he could reach these boys of whom he had defamed for years. Instead of reaching for glory, he tried desperately to grab a spiteful revenge, going back on his own word and pushing away friends who helped get him to the lofty position he assumed he held. And the filmmakers make the connection between past and present obvious by showing his successful coaching tactics in Derby juxtaposed with the abject failure of the same in Leeds.

I don’t want to overshadow the actual sport scenes, because they are shot effectively. Spliced with what appears to be actual game footage, we are shown the dirty maneuvers of Leeds as well as the skills Clough himself has. I wonder how many takes it took for a couple seamless shots of Michael Sheen chest bumping a passed ball in order to strike it mid-air into the goal. Who knows, maybe he was a bit of a player himself before the acting career took off. There aren’t many instances of true game play however, many times we just see the coach and his players talking before a game as the final score is superimposed above the image. Even when showing a montage of winning ways, we see the actual standing boards, Derby’s placeholder moving up swiftly in the ranks. This isn’t about the soccer; it’s about the man behind the game who let it all get away from him. In Sheen’s portrayal of Clough we are given a lively gentleman unafraid to speak his mind, no matter how dangerous it might be. He is a family man at heart that crafted his team, as he did his own wife and children, with love. Taylor scouted the boys and signed them; Clough smoothed things over with the moneymen and trained the players to be champions. It was the desire for more, satisfied by greed and anger, which began his fall.

Sheen really is one of the best actors working today. And to think I first saw him as a werewolf in Underworld—by no means a bad film, I actually quite enjoy it, but definitely not a role displaying the dramatic excellence contained within him. His Clough really does come across as a likeable guy that has earned his notoriety as both a loudmouth and a winner. Watching the compassion in the locker room with his boys and the loving relationship he had with his staff, especially best friend and assistant coach Taylor, is necessary to effectively show where he went wrong. As good as he is playing the self-righteous prick he becomes, Sheen is wonderful in expressing the torture felt beneath the façade constructed for the cameras. He was hurting before he ever arrived at Leeds and nothing there would be able to change that. As for Taylor, I enjoyed seeing Timothy Spall getting a part he could sink his teeth into rather than just be a supporting player in the background. Here is a man doing something he loves, knowing when he has a good thing and not wanting to mess that up for petty desires. I also thought Colm Meaney was successfully cast as the villain of this tale, Don Revie. Not only is he a spitting image of the soccer coach, no one else can do angry, egomaniacal jerk like him.

Hooper has gotten the aesthetic of the times down to perfection too with wardrobe, technology, and hairstyles. The Damned United is a wonderful look into British sports in the 70s, showing the fervor for soccer and the importance the entire nation holds in this pastime. I can’t deny that my enjoyment stems greatly from the fact that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill success story of shoddy team finding a way to win and be the David to whomever’s Goliath. There is something to be said about failure and how it can open one’s eyes to what truly matters. Above any self-satisfying action is the ability to see the big picture and ask whether the next move would actually be the right one. Sometimes you need to fall before you can pick yourself back up again, hoping you didn’t burn your bridges irreparably in the wake. We can all learn how to win and succeed, but what is intrinsically there or not is that appeal to be liked and appreciated for who you are. Brian Clough has that in spades; he just needed to wake up a bit to remember that it was success in life that achieved his victory on the field.

The Damned United 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Left to Right: Timothy Spall as Peter Taylor and Michael Sheen as Brian Clough. Photo taken by Laurie Sparham © Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, All Rights Reserved.
[2] Colm Meaney as Don Revie. Photo taken by Laurie Sparham © Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, All Rights Reserved.


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