THE DAMNED UNITED
 

Dir. Tom Hooper. UK. 2009
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Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk
 
 


 
 

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There have been many outspoken and controversial coaches in sports history but none as cocky and controversial as British Football (soccer to us) coach Brian Clough, a man who won two League titles and two European Cups with underdog teams from the east midlands, yet is mainly known for being fired after only 44 days from Leeds United, the soccer champions of 1974. From a screenplay by Peter Morgan, Academy Award winning director Tom Hooper's The Damned United is a character study of a brilliant but flawed individual and his on-again, off-again relationship with his close associate, Peter Taylor, as together they hit the heights, then plumb the depths. 


The film stands out for exceptional performances by Timothy Spall as the loyal Taylor, Colm Meaney as the pompous Leeds manager, Don Revie, and Jim Broadbent as Derby's rigid owner Sam Longson. The film, however, belongs to Michael Sheen (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), who creates an unforgettable character in Brian Clough: outrageous, smart, arrogant, neurotic, but fully alive. a cocksure genius who once said: “I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the country. But I'm in the top one.” When a journalist remarks that he's been called the best young manager in the country, he replies: “Thank you; I'm the best old one too.” The film does not discuss Clough's lifetime battle with alcoholism.

The story begins in 1974 when Clough is chosen to replace long-time manager of Leeds United, Don Revie, who is stepping down to become the coach of England's national team. The film then backtracks through Clough's flamboyant career, beginning with his tenure as head coach of the Derby County Rams from 1969 to 1972 where he raised the underdog team from the bottom of Division 2 to being a strong competitor for the European Cup. Before the match in Turin against the European powerhouse Juventus team, however, against Longson's advice, Clough used his best players in a game with Leeds, only to have them suffer injuries that kept them out of the game in Europe. Losing in Turin to Juventus 3-1, Longson calls Clough a fool and Clough publicly berates the owner.  

When Taylor suffers a heart attack, without consulting Taylor, Clough offers his and Taylor's resignations, thinking it unlikely that they would be accepted. To his shock, the board accepts their resignations and appoints Dave Mackay as manager, a player that Clough and Taylor had brought of retirement two years ago. After accepting a job with Brighton & Hove, Clough reneges and agrees to take the job at his old nemesis Leeds, leaving Taylor at Brighton and allowing their friendship to suffer a strong setback. At Leeds, Clough gets off on the wrong foot with his players, berating them for their past cheating and brutality and suggests they collect their trophies and throw them away.  

He tells them that they must play in a more honest and less bullying manner and has them perform exercises that they had not been asked to do previously. Revie is still revered by both players and fans, and the Leeds players look at their new coach with disdain bordering on contempt. In an interview after his appointment, Clough lays into Revie, still harboring a grudge since the Leeds manager refused to shake his hand before a match. In the opening game of the season, things go from bad to worse for Clough as Leeds captain Billy Bremer is suspended for violence and lost to the team for six weeks.

The players refuse to play for Clough and the team wins only one of their first five games, forcing the hand of the board who fires him after only 44 days. Though there is little soccer action (mostly violent), The Damned United is a damned good film, a funny, sometimes sad, but ultimately inspiring look at the value of humility, friendship, and forgiveness, often overlooked in the competitive world of sports. You do not have to be a Brit, a Football fan, or even a sports enthusiast to appreciate the message.


GRADE: A-

Howard Schumann

 
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