Brian Clough is a legend among English soccer managers. He was the youngest coach in the league when, at 30, he took over Hartlepools United in 1965. In the early 1970s, he lifted a mediocre Derby County team from the Second Division to champion of the First, playing in a European Cup semifinal along the way. And in the late 1970s, he took an obscure Nottingham Forest squad all the way to back-to-back European Cup trophies, a feat considered one of the greatest in the history of the sport. His is, in short, a perfect Hollywood underdog story.
But, remarkably, it’s not the story told by The Damned United. Instead, the film describes what happened in between, the fall between two rises. Its narrative arc is a near-perfect inversion of a typical sports movie’s, the chronicle of an overdog laid low: A famous, successful manager (Clough) who takes over a famous, successful team (Leeds United) in the mid-1970s, and drives it straight into the ground, winning just one match before being sacked 44 days into his tenure.
The Damned United is directed by Tom Hooper (best known for HBO’s Elizabeth I and John Adams) and adapted from a David Peace novel by the ever-in-demand Peter Morgan. Like Morgan’s previous scripts for The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and Frost/Nixon, this one is constructed as a contest of wills between a youngish Brit (Clough) and an older, more imposing historical figure (Don Revie, the renowned Leeds manager who preceded Clough). As Derby manager, Clough had despised--and been desperately envious of--Revie, and had considered Leeds a team of thugs and cheaters, an assessment he loudly and unwisely maintained even when put in charge of the club himself. (As motivational tools go, calling your players "dirty buggers" during the first team meeting leaves something to be desired.)
The film stars Michael Sheen--who played Tony Blair and David Frost, respectively, in Morgan’s last two major outings--as Clough, and he is a minor revelation. His earlier portraits of famous Brits were supple, but perhaps a bit too nice. Both Blair and Frost seemed tidied up for the requirements of heroic cinema, with inconvenient vanities or ambitions largely stowed away off-screen. Clough, by contrast, is little more than an accretion of vanities and ambitions: smug, pompous, grasping, insubordinate, as eager to hog credit in good times as he is to deflect blame in bad. More wired and wiry than in past performances, Sheen nails Clough’s preening obnoxiousness while also conveying the relentless insecurity wriggling uncomfortably beneath it. (He also pulls off a smashing North Yorkshire accent.)
As Revie, Colm Meaney enjoys only limited screen time, but his character hovers over the proceedings like a taunt, an eternal itch Clough can never quite scratch. Bulky and rough-hewn where Clough is smooth and well-coiffed, taciturn where he is loquacious, Revie offers the perfect contrast: experience vs. enthusiasm, earth vs. air, Old England vs. New.
Over the course of the film, the frame shifts subtly, however, becoming less concerned with the relationship between Clough and Revie and more with that between Clough and Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), the longtime assistant manager and alter-ego who did not accompany him on his move to Leeds. (There’s more balancing of opposites here, with Taylor berating Clough, "You’re the shop window, the razzle and the dazzle. But I’m the goods in the back.") Spall is a fine actor, and it’s a pleasure to see him in a role that offers more than the comical toadying he’s been called on to provide in Enchanted and the Harry Potter movies. Jim Broadbent, too, appears as the director of the Derby County team, and provides his customary excellence.
Like the novel on which it is based (which was the subject of a successful lawsuit), The Damned United takes its share of historical liberties: In reality, Clough didn’t immediately break a promise to manage Brighton & Hove Albion in order to take the Leeds job, but rather coached the former team for almost a full season; and there is little hint of Clough’s serious alcoholism, which doubtless contributed to his personal travails. All told though, these alterations are probably less severe than those that afflicted Frost/Nixon, and certainly of lesser consequence.
Indeed, one of the primary pleasures of The Damned United is that, in choosing a topic as narrow and parochial as the fate of an English soccer club, Morgan has relieved himself of any duty to persuade us that the events he describes are of world-historical import--that the Frost-Nixon interviews fundamentally altered America’s view of its former president, or the Queen’s visit to Diana’s grave did the same for Britain’s feelings toward its royal family. Some viewers, I suppose, will be disappointed that The Damned United does not try to puff itself up into something more. But for the rest, it is a fine story, expertly told.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.