Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Feature: 'The Damned United'

Michael Sheen as the extraordinary manager, Brian Clough
by Todd Starkweather

No, probably not the “United” football club most readers will envision when they read the phrase "the damned United." At one point in English football history Manchester United took a back seat to another giant of English football: Leeds United. Just a few generations ago, Leeds stood tall amongst England's footballing elite.

The Damned United (2009) tells one particularly enthralling tale from those Leeds United glory days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The club's most successful manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), had suddenly resigned in the summer of 1974 to lead the English national squad. Leeds United sought to hire a big name manager to replace the one that left, and the team offered the job to Revie's rival, Brian Clough (Michael Sheen). Clough had achieved great success, leading Derby County to the First Division Title in 1972. (Yes, even more improbable than imagining Leeds United as a top dog in English football is imagining Derby County as champions.). However, his reign as Leeds United manager was and remains one of the most spectacular collapses in the history of sport. In the time span of a mere 44 days, Clough, one of the most respected and admired managers in England, took over the defending champions, led them to a miserable start, engendered hatred from the players, supporters, and the board, and was eventually sacked. If the story had not been true, the film would have seemed preposterous.

Fortunately, the story was true, and screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Tom Hooper create rarity: a brilliant film about sport. Prior to The Damned United, Morgan had penned scripts for The Queen (2006) and Frost/Nixon (2008). Hooper, meanwhile followed up The Damned United with The King's Speech (2010) and Les Miserables (2012). While I will not say that The Damned United is better than all four of those films, but I enjoyed it more. Now, my bias as someone who enjoys football more than British royalty, American presidents, and bad singing probably contributes to my assessment of the film. Yet even those who have no real affinity for English league football will find The Damned United a terrific film.

In creating a quality film about sport, Morgan and Hooper employed the tactic of filming very little sporting action. Hooper splices in some old file footage of the actual Leeds United and Derby County matches, but he wisely avoids trying to have actors recreate the matches. One of the best scenes in the film involved a match between Clough's Derby and Revie's United. Only we never saw a bit of it. The entire match, the ebbs and flows and all the drama, was captured by watching Sheen's Clough, too nervous to watch from the pitch, pace nervously back and forth in his office. To Hooper and Morgan's credit, they found a way to nearly emulate the anxiety and joy of sport. No overwrought athletic heroics filmed in slow motion were required. The tick of the clock, Sheen's face, and the crowd's vocal reactions told the story of the match.

A few moments of play are shown at times in the film if only to provide context, but Hooper wisely keeps the drama and action confined the sidelines, dressing rooms, boardrooms, and hotel rooms, all of which are wonderfully rendered with vintage 60s and 70s décor. Tables, clocks, wallpaper, telephones and all other manner of bric-a-brac are meticulously stylized.

Of course, while the story involves those who plied their trade in football, the story if more about ambition, desire, success, a tragic fall, and ultimate redemption. Sheen marvelously plays an attractive character who, if played less adeptly, might be regarded as stupid, self-absorbed ass. Sheen has had a fair amount of experience playing powerful men. He has also played Tony Blair (The Queen) and David Frost (Frost/Nixon). (I guess Morgan writes with Sheen in mind.) Here, though, he is at his most attractive and dislikable. His sharp facial features make him knife-like. His is brilliant and sharp but does not realize that his personality cuts too deep for those who care for him. 

After receiving a perceived slight at the hand of Revie, Sheen's Clough vows to make his club greater than Leeds United, and with the help of assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), he does just that. However, his obsession with unseating Revie and Leeds United lead to his fall. Taylor warns him, but Clough refuses to listen and eventually splits company with Taylor, calling him unambitious.  The relationship between the two men is the film’s underlying narrative. In many ways this is a romance with a bitter break up and heart-warming reconciliation.

On the surface, it would seem hard to root for Clough after watching him treat his great friend in the manner he does and then doing a rather lousy job of managing Leeds. The film did not hide the crap job that Clough did at Leeds, and it makes clear that Clough only took the job to spite Revie and cared little about the club, its players, or its fans.  Clough realizes this all too late and is sacked after his miserable 44-day run as manager at Leeds.

While the movie ends with Clough's sacking, Clough's story does not end, and I think that the second half of Clough's career as the popular manager of Nottingham Forrest ultimately helps make Clough a more redemptive figure than he otherwise might appear. Eventually reuniting with Taylor, Clough took over Nottingham Forrest and led them to two consecutive European titles, an astonishing feat that neither Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, or Pep Guardiola have matched. Even though Clough's career is bookended by his achievements at Derby and Forrest, his career is best told through his time of failure Leeds United. Such an amazing failure makes his accomplishments all the greater.

So if you begin watching the Premier League on NBC, remember that English football has a much richer and more interesting history than what you might be told on Saturday mornings and afternoons.

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