Peter Morgan has imagined the inside story of a president (“Frost/Nixon”), a prime minister (“The Deal”), a tyrant (“The Last King of Scotland”) and a monarch (“The Queen”). Now the screenwriter has turned his considerable talents to a rather smaller role, but one still often accompanied by an oversized ego: the English football manager.
Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in two of those films and David Frost in a third, puts as much gusto into his portrayal of Brian Clough, whom the film argues is the greatest manager the English national team never had.
Perhaps it was his ego that kept him from the coveted job. This is a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris — rather like many of Mr. Morgan’s other tales, though this one is on a rather less grand scale.
The film, based on a fictionalized telling of events by David Peace, opens in July, 1974. Clough has just been made manager of Leeds United, “the dominant force in English football,” after Don Revie (Colm Meaney) left to take over the national team. Clough wants to make big changes. “They’ve been champions, but they’ve not been good champions,” he says of the rough-and-tumble team known for practically annihilating its opponents.
Any new manager would want to leave his mark, but Clough is particularly naive. He insists the beloved Revie wasn’t so loved after all: “They wouldn’t have played football that way if they were happy.” The media-craving manager doesn’t have anyone to point out his strategic errors, either. His longstanding deputy, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), is managing his own team for the first time.
In a country that takes the game very seriously indeed, the stage is set for a national disaster.
The film flashes back five years earlier to explain why. Clough and Taylor are managing Derby County, bottom of the second division. The first time they play Leeds, a rivalry is created — at least in Clough’s eyes. Revie won’t even acknowledge him, and the Leeds players enter the city like rock stars. Clough and Taylor, mostly by spending money the owner (a wonderfully put-upon and putting-upon Jim Broadbent) hasn’t approved, turn the team around and get them into the first division. It makes the already cocky Clough almost insufferable.
“The Damned United,” a title that nicely sums up the mixed feelings about Leeds, is not just for soccer obsessives. Pride, ambition, loyalty, friendship — these are universal themes. (Though the film’s rather light on women; wives simply make cameo appearances.) Tom Hooper, who directed HBO’s “John Adams” miniseries, has made a stylish film that’s nicely steeped in the underrated 1970s. It’s entertaining even if you don’t quite follow all of the intricacies of the game, mostly thanks to the boisterous cast.
This is a film about the way men deal with each other — and at the end, it becomes something of a bromance between Clough and sidekick Taylor. Mr. Sheen manages to make the conceited manager so lovable that neither Taylor — nor the audience — can resist.
TITLE: “The Damned United”
RATING: R (language)
CREDITS: Directed by Tom Hooper. Written by Peter Morgan based on the novel “The Damned Utd” by David Peace.
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
WEB SITE: thedamnedunited.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS