In “The Damned United” actor Michael Sheen once again gives a remarkably outstanding performance as a real-life English public figure, this time playing Football Manager Brian Clough. Beginning with his portrayal of British-Prime Minister Tony Blair in the British television movie "The Deal” and then in the feature film “The Queen,” Sheen most recently played English talk show host David Frost in Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon.” The actor has an uncanny ability to play a role based on a public figure in a way that makes you completely believe you are looking through a window into that world while at the same time displaying a vulnerability that makes you sympathize with the character. That is no different in this film as Sheen makes you root for the arrogant and extremely unlikable Clough to be successful in his new role as Manager of the championship Leeds United, even though we are fully aware that he is doomed from the start.
The film does an excellent job of quickly catching you up on the characters and history you need to know to follow the story. Set in ‘60s and ‘70s England, the film tells the story of Brian Clough’s doomed 44 days tenure as Manager of the reigning champions of English football, Leeds United. Previously managed by his bitter rival Don Revie, and on the back of their most successful period ever as a football club, Leeds was perceived by many to represent a new aggressive and cynical style of football. This new style was completely opposite to everything Clough believed and stood for as a Manager. Clough achieved astonishing success as the Manager of Hartlepool and Derby County, building teams in his vision with right-hand-man, Peter Taylor. Clough takes the Leeds job without Taylor by his side, out of a misguided attempt to prove a point and have his revenge on Revie. But with a locker room full of what in Clough’s mind were still “Don’s boys,” things don’t go as planned and eventually lead to Clough’s being fired after only 44 days.
What the film does very well is tell the story in a way that doesn’t confuse an audience that might not know all of the history. The story begins with Clough’s announcement as new Manager of Leeds and then beautifully jumps back and forth to unfold Clough’s history as a manager, his rivalry with Revie and how he got to where he was. Where it could be easy to get confused with all the characters and different timelines the director, Tom Hooper keeps it absolutely clear for the audience. Another aspect I enjoyed is that the sports in the film really take a back seat to the real story, which is an examination of friendship, obsession and humility. That’s not to say that the football scenes aren’t marvelously shot for fans of the sport to enjoy, but I think the film works because of the strong, human story at the heart of the movie. For example, there is a scene where Clough is expelled from a game against Revie’s Leeds and forced to pace back and forth in his office unaware of the progress of the game and awaiting the outcome. The shadows that Hooper plays with in his office adds to the feeling of Clough’s anxiety in a room that almost looks like it’s getting smaller by the moment. The director allows the fan’s unspecific cheers to drown out the sound and leave you wondering who is winning. This is a great example of were not showing the game was a more dramatic way of letting the story unfold and it allows the audience to really live the tense moment along with Sheen’s character. When the outcome is revealed it makes for a stronger payoff for the audience.
Written by Peter Morgan who previously penned “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon” certainly has a feel for these contemporary historical English stories and again delivers a smart, tight script. It does seem like a perfect fit, the use of Sheen and Morgan together in these films and “The Damned United” is no exception. Giving another stellar Oscar worthy performance, Sheen’s great achievement is making the otherwise pompous and conceited Clough into a sympathetic and vulnerable man that you really want to see succeed and end up forgiving for his selfish ways. One of the truly great scenes in the film, reminiscent of “Frost/Nixon,” comes near the end of the movie after Clough has been fired. He is tricked into going on live TV with Revie himself, played by Colm Meaney and discuses the fiasco. What takes place is an uncomfortable encounter between the two men that displays both of their weaknesses. Revie’s stubbornness to admit his own wrong doing and Clough’s almost childlike bitterness and obsession with earning Revie’s respect.
In the end, “The Damned United” stands as more than just a great sports movie or biopic. It’s an examination at what makes people successful, what drives them to succeed. For Brian Clough it was clearly arrogance and obsession but at the end of the day where does that leave him? What do you do when your greatest asset is also your undoing? How do you pick up the pieces and move on? At the same time the movie is about friendship and how sometimes the most important people in your life can be taken for granted. This is highlighted best in the relationship between Clough and Peter Taylor, also brilliantly played by Timothy Spall in an Oscar worthy supporting role. The film is a thrilling and moving look inside English Football and at what makes us all tick, examining themes of obsession, friendship and the cost of success and it's a movie that can be enjoyed by sports fans and none-sports fans alike.