When is a sports movie not a sports movie?
When it’s Tom Hooper’s terrific “The Damned United,” yet another feather in actor Michael Sheen’s cap and another in his expanding gallery of film roles based on real-life characters.
Sheen plays Brian Clough, a British legend as a football (read: soccer) coach, all but unknown in the United States. The film, written by Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”), focuses on an explosive moment in Clough’s storied career, when his blend of talent, vaulting ambition and hubris led to a crash-and-burn encounter that is fascinating in its audacity.
The story is built around Clough’s hiring in 1974 to coach Great Britain’s championship team, Leeds United. He arrives as an already-controversial figure with a giant chip on his shoulder. The baggage he brings is based on his long-standing animosity toward and rivalry with Leed’s storied coach, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), who left Leeds to coach England’s national team.
The story is told on parallel tracks, contrasting Clough’s brief stay at Leeds with his early days coaching lowly Derby County, and the bitter (if one-way) relationship between Clough and Revie. Clough still harbors a grudge over what he feels was a slight by Revie when the two teams first met. His jealousy fuels his passion for winning, as he takes his beleaguered team from the bottom to the top, eventually beating Revie’s Leeds squad, while denouncing them as cheaters and cheap-shot artists.
Indeed, on his first day with Leeds, he confronts the players with exactly those charges. Their championship trophies and ribbons mean nothing, he tells them, because they won by playing dirty and intimidating referees. How to win friends and influence people, indeed.
Clough has the passion; the brains belong to Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), his long-time assistant and friend. Taylor is his talent scout, his strategist, his conscience – it’s a partnership that seems both unlikely and symbiotic at the same time.
But Clough overplays his hand in Derby County, betting wrongly that his winning record makes him irreplaceable when he gets into a power struggle with the chairman of the team’s board (Jim Broadbent). Taylor tries to talk him out of issuing an ultimatum – but the egomaniacal Clough is convinced that his performance on the field will trump his bad behavior off of it. Wrong again.
Morgan’s script bounces back and forth in time, offering contrasts and comparisons, as Clough lets his mouth and his ego get in the way of common sense. That’s true when he goes head to head with the chairman in Derby – and again when he tries to bend the entire Leeds squad to his will in his new job.
Yet, in a sense, Morgan offers a character study of a visionary, forced to submit to people who lack his vision – whether it’s the bosses in Derby County or the team in Leeds. Clough (rhymes with stuff) may be able to inspire players – but he can’t read people. He charges ahead under the assumption that his brilliance is enough to carry him through – never mind the sensibilities and sensitivities of other human beings in his path.
Sheen, so wonderfully restrained as Tony Blair and deliciously self-aware as David Frost, finds a kind of mania that sends sparks shooting from Clough’s eyes. He’s the ultimate zealot, so convinced of his own rightness that he can’t see where he’s wrong – or even entertain the possibility that he might be.
He’s beautifully balanced by Spall as his long-suffering assistant, who isn’t afraid to pull him back to earth – when he can. Spall, with his hangdog look and lumbering physique, is the plodder to Clough’s sprinter – but the one person who can get at Clough’s humanity and humility.
The protean Jim Broadbent is marvelous as the cigar-chomping team chairman: grumpy, blustering – and secretly steely and intractable. Colm Meaney captures the dismissive quality of Revie’s relationship with Clough; Clough is like a stalker for whom Revie feels only curiosity and disdain and Meaney shows just why Revie is able to sting Clough so easily.
You don’t need to know soccer or British professional football to get a kick out of “The Damned United”; it’s easily understood – and entertaining good fun, to boot. It captures the professional-sports dynamic of any pursuit in which the thrill of the chase can undermine the pursuer’s good sense, even as he overruns his own ability to understand what it is that he seeks.