The Damned United (review)

Thow the Ball, Catch the Ball…

I don’t get football — not the American variety, not the British variety. But I once had someone explain the fascination of the American kind like this: It’s a game of chess the coaches engage in with each other by moving their human chesspiece players around on the board of the gridiron. That explanation didn’t make the sport appeal to me anymore than it already did, but I understood then why others might find it as enthralling as they appear to.

And The Damned United made me appreciate that the same could be said of the game the British call football, too: that it’s not about the game per se but about the men who play it… and the men who play it aren’t the ones on the field but the ones directing the action from the sidelines.
I might not know from football, I do know people, and The Damned United is an absolutely thrilling story, one both hilarious and poignant, about a man who is downright classical in his flaws: heroically talented but arrogant to the point of hubris, which does, naturally, lead to his ruin. You don’t need to know anything about British sport to find this film utterly enthralling… and in fact, it might help if you don’t know anything about it, because then you can avoid getting caught up in the authenticity (or lack thereof) of the details and let the allegorical honesty of it wash over you.

There is, apparently, some dispute over whether the fact-based novel — The Damned Utd, by David Peace [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] — that Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Other Boleyn Girl) based his screenplay on is, in fact, as fact-based as it could be… but that may be merely a factor of it not being a terribly flattering portrayal of its subject. Brian Clough was the real coach of the powerhouse team Leeds United — perhaps comparable to the New York Yankees of American baseball for their (Leeds’) overwhelming dominance of the sport in the late 1960s and early 1970s — and it is a fact that he was Leeds’ coach for only 44 days in 1974. Why he was their coach for such a short time is what this story is all about.

Clough is so charming — Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, Blood Diamond), who always has a hint something impish and elven about him, is absolutely perfect here as a man who thrives (and later falls) on his own supernatural self-confidence — and the Leeds players are such bastards that we’re inevitably on Clough’s side as the film opens. The Leeds footballers have built their winning streak on playing so rough and so dirty that you can’t believe the refs let them get away with it, and here comes Clough, who says things like “Football is a beautiful game and it needs to be played beautifully” with such sincerity that even I, football atheist that I am, can see that this is clearly the way the game should be played, and even I understand with a religious conviction why Clough had to publicly criticize these brutes even before he was hired to lead them.

But that bulwark of self-centeredness that Morgan and director Tom Hooper shield Clough with initially gives way to something more like an objective perspective, as we rewind to see the years-long pissing contest that has been going on between Clough, in his capacity coaching other teams, and Leeds’ just-ousted coach, Don Revie (Colm Meaney [Law Abiding Citizen, King of Texas], so deliciously fiendish). As we start to see the Leeds players not as vicious monsters but as, well, gamepieces desperate for direction. As we begin to understand the true depths of Clough’s arrogance in throwing his longtime coaching partner, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall [Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street], as lovely as he always is), to the metaphorical wolves as he decides that he can do it all on his own.

This isn’t a movie about football. (There’s strikingly little football in it, in fact: instead of the games themselves, we witness how people — coaches, players, fans, owners — react to the games.) This is a movie about love: how the lack of it between coaches and players can be disastrous, and how a love for the game can overwhelm common sense in those who love it most. It makes me sad for this one man, who let his love blind him to all else to the point at which it threatened that very love.

That’s about as close as I’ll ever get to loving football, but that’s not so bad at all.

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