I was sitting in a plush screening room at the Sony Pictures Lot in Culver City, CA – just a short walk down the hallway to anything and everything Spider-Man (hell, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst may have been on premises for all I know – the studio lot was so infested with Spider-Man promos) but when The Damned United kicked-off I was no longer in warm Los Angeles.
The movie begins in rainy, dark, windy Leeds. 1970s England. A far cry from a plush LA screening room in 2009. Don Revie’s Leeds United are top of England – in the midst of a glorious run and Elland Road is filled to capacity.
But it’s not what transpires on the pitch that’s really important here.
This isn’t just a football movie. In fact, the game scenes are rare. Director Tom Hooper’s brilliant adaptation of David Pearce’s novel is a character study, a drama, and a dark comedy rolled into one – it just happens to be set within the brilliant and dramatic English First Division of football.
Michael Sheen (of Frost/Nixon and The Queen fame) stars as Brian Clough, the larger than life cocky, witty motor mouth who succeeds Revie at Leeds. Revie has moved on to the England job. A big promotion, that. And there you have it. The stage is set. Clough has some pretty big boots to fill – quite similar in fact to the modern day Jose Mourinho / Avram Grant scenario that played out at Stamford Bridge just 2 years ago.
And Clough is certainly a fascinating man – a man of extremes – contradictory, outspoken, extraordinary. Sheen is the show-stealer – putting together as brilliant of a performance as Arshavin did last year when he hit for four goals at Anfield. Sheen is that good.
Through a combination of flash-backs and flash-forwards (Hartlepool – Derby County – Leeds) the audience is treated to the gritty, beautiful footballing landscape of the ‘60s and ‘70s in England – where players smoked cigarettes in the dressing room, and two footed tackles in training were the norm, not the exception to the rule.
The film succeeds because it is able to traverse the precarious tightrope between being just a “brilliant football film” and an actual “brilliant film” and so it will be loved by not only football addicts but by those who appreciate a great piece of art. This is the type of film you can take your wife/girlfriend/significant other too, it’s just that universal.
Clough’s relationship with his Assistant Manger and best friend Peter Taylor (played by Timothy Spall) is perhaps a perfect example of the film’s success on a non-football level. The relationship is an emotional rollercoaster and the best examination of a working relationship and close friendship I can remember seeing on film.
Clough is opinionated, charming, almost heroic. This movie makes me believe that he is the greatest British manager of all time who never managed the national team.
The Damned United is a must see film- for any football fan, and any lover of true drama, heartbreak, and larger than life characters.
I would give the film a rating of four soccer balls out of five, a Champions League contender if there ever was one. Basically – the equivalent of Nottingham Forest in 1979 and 1980. Legendary.
Thanks to Ibracadabra of Never Captain Nicky Butt for the review.