Movie News & Reviews

'Damned United': a love story in cleats

A sports legend in the United Kingdom, Europe and soccer circles the world over, Brian Clough is little known in the States, but that shouldn't stop anyone from seeing The Damned United, a pitch-perfect portrait of a man full of inspiration and ambition — and full of himself.

Written by Peter Morgan, who brought David Frost and Elizabeth II to the screen with uncanny insight in Frost/Nixon and The Queen, respectively, The Damned United — like those films — stars Michael Sheen.

The nimble English actor shows neither the daunted despair of the talk-show host nor the political agility of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Instead, Clough is presented as a principled but pompous soccer strategist, a man who took an altogether sorry second-tier team (Derby County) and turned it into the pride of the nation and a contender for the European Cup. Sheen is brilliant: passionate, nutty, arrogant, alive.

After his resounding success, Clough is offered the manager's job at Leeds United — one of the winningest teams in British football history. His tenure there is, well, disastrous. The Damned United tells the tale.

Toggling between the late 1960s and early 1970s, and shot in marvelous saturated color full of contrasting red-brick rowhouses, muddy green fields and punishing gray skies, The Damned United is less a sports movie than a study of human nature — of raging egos; of friendships gone bad; of trust, integrity, hope and hubris.

In fact, director Tom Hooper (HBO's John Adams), working with Morgan's deft adaptation of the book by David Peace, barely puts his cameras on the playing field. In one exquisitely quiet and taut scene, Sheen's Clough shuts himself in a stadium office during a key game, gauging his squad's success (or lack thereof) by the sound his hometown crowd is (or isn't) making on the far side of the wall.

When Clough goes to Leeds, he leaves behind his right-hand man, coaching lieutenant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). The break is as painful as a divorce, and its repercussions no less profound. In a funny way, The Damned United is a love story as much as a sports film. The genius of it is you don't realize that until the thing is over and done.