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The Damned United

A Compelling Character Study

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Directed by Tom Hooper and adapted by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) from David Peace’s novel, The Damned United centers on Brian Clough’s spectacular flameout as Leeds United’s manager in 1974. Clough’s 44-day tenure as the United’s manager has become legendary among British soccer fans, but, given the second-tier status of soccer in the U.S., practically unknown stateside. Less a traditional sports drama or a standard biopic than a character study, The Damned United is never less than compelling thanks to Morgan’s sure-footed insight into Clough’s complex, contradictory personality and Michael Sheen’s chameleon-like performance.

The Damned United opens on a bitter, defeated Clough (Michael Sheen) in 1974, sitting in a television studio, his tenure as Leeds United manager over. His one-time rival and former Leeds United manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) sits next to him. Clough mentions a long-ago slight perpetuated by the clueless Revie. Six years earlier, Revie failed to shake Clough’s hand after the First Division Leeds United team soundly defeated Clough’s Second Division Derby County team in an FA Cup match. That slight fueled Clough’s already outsized ambition. With the help of his longtime assistant, talent scout, and occasional conscience, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), and Derby County’s chairman, Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent), Clough leads Derby County to the top of the Second Division and promotion to the First Division.

Hooper and Morgan use a non-linear structure for the remainder of The Damned United, following Clough’s success as Derby County’s manager, his almost unquenchable desire to defeat Revie and Leeds United and, back in 1974, his tenure as Leeds United’s manager. On his first day as Leeds’ manager, the egocentric, hubristic Clough informs his new players that every award, every medal, every recognition, including winning the First Division, were obtained through thuggish on-field behavior, negating Revie and the team’s accomplishments. Clough prefers a cleaner brand of soccer, saying he prefers “the beautiful game to be played beautifully.” Not surprisingly, his new team reacts negatively to his approach and play listlessly.

The Damned United isn’t a sports drama per se. If anything, it’s an anti-sports drama, focusing on losing with dignity. It also doesn’t spend much time on the field, showing few scenes of Leeds and Derby players practicing or playing. Wins and losses are covered through a combination of archival footage and footage treated to look like it was made in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Hooper and Morgan use title cards to make the non-linear structure relatively easy to follow, all in service of a compelling character study of a flawed man.

Clough’s fall from soccer grace may not be Shakespearean, but his lack of self-awareness, perspective, empathy, and ego-fueled hubris give him a tragic dimension. Clough’s ambition reaches new heights (or new lows) in his growing hatred for Revie, the one-time father figure he once respected who inadvertently rejected him. Contradictory, mercurial, moralistic (Clough’s longtime battle with alcoholism was left offscreen), Clough was also a brilliant manager who resurrected his moribund career only four years later with Nottingham Forest, a team he took to the First Division and two consecutive European Cups.

And in Michael Sheen, an actor who’s distinguished himself as Tony Blair (twice, in The Deal and later The Queen) and as David Frost (Frost/Nixon), Hooper and Morgan found the near-perfect embodiment of a deeply flawed man. Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent round out an equally superlative cast, Spall as Clough’s longtime suffering friend and assistant and Broadbent as the Derby County owner who finds himself increasingly at odds with Clough’s flagrant disregard for the club’s hierarchy or budget limitations.