The Damned United is the fourth cinematic collaboration between actor Michael Sheen and screenwriter Peter Morgan. In each film, Sheen portrays a real life British figure who achieved popularity and notoriety in the respective industries of politics, broadcasting and sports. As Tony Blair (in both The Queen and The Deal), David Frost (Frost/Nixon) and now Brian Clough, Sheen plays variations on a theme: the idealistic young man who used charisma and supreme self-confidence to challenge the system with bullish pomposity.
In spite of their similarities, each performance is remarkable and Sheen clearly goes to great lengths to emulate and understand these historical personalities. The Damned United is his most captivating performance yet. While his previous roles had him pitted against celebrated veteran performers Helen Mirren and Frank Langella, Sheen is placed front and center as Clough, the brash and opinionated football manager (soccer coach to the Americans) who infamously took charge of the Leeds United club for a tumultuous 44 days.
Morgan’s screenplay, based on a book by David Peace and directed by Tom Hooper, focuses on the six weeks at Leeds United in 1974 and key events over the previous sex years that led up to that point. As the film opens, Clough has been appointed manager following the departure of the eminent Don Revie (played by Colm Meaney), who has left to take the position of England national football manager.
Clough enters the scene cocky and assured as he gads about town boasting to the press but failing to impress the Leeds United players. The team, all very much still indebted to the ways of Don Revie, bristles at the explicitly anti-Revie approach that Clough takes. Clough’s uncalculated bravado quickly gets the better of him as the club’s season has a disastrous start.
Interwoven through the events of those 44 days are flashbacks to Clough’s days managing Derby County with Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). These scenes are designed to give both an understanding of his remarkable skill as a manager and an insight to the events that spurred his obsessive drive to defeat Don Revie.
In the beginning of the film, Clough comes off as a noble maverick whose intention is to bring back respect and formality to the Leeds United pitch. As it progresses, however, he becomes more and more complex with suggestions that his motivation was not entirely pure. The film climaxes in a televised showdown between Clough and Revie, a riveting sequence that crystallizes the film as a fascinating character study.
The Damned United made a fair amount of money at the British box office but was a non-event in the US, grossing less than half a million dollars in spite of rave reviews from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. When approaching a sports film, there’s always the fear that if you don’t have a prior interest in the sport, you won’t be able to follow the film. The Damned United is a very insular endeavor and between the jargon, and the inside sports vantage point, this is one film that requires a passing interest (or at least a tolerance) of British football in order to enjoy it.
Upon its release, the film drew some fierce criticism in its native country for taking historical liberties and for mollifying its subject. Even without knowing the facts, there’s a sense that we are seeing a somewhat sanitized interpretation of the events. For the most part, this works in the film’s favor, helping things to move along at a brisk pace. However, the ending is a bit timid about its representation of Clough as it shifts abruptly between dwelling on his weaknesses to exalting him.
The Blu-ray release comes with virtually everything you could ask for in the way of special features. As evident by a lively commentary track with Sheen, Hooper and producer Andy Harries, the filmmakers are clearly very fond of the film and are eager to chronicle its production. Hooper also provides optional audio commentary over approximately 35-minutes of deleted scenes and candidly explains their exclusion; many of which revolved around the film’s structure and the audience’s sympathy for Clough.
There is also a 15-minute behind the scenes featurette and a ten-minute interview with Sheen discussing his preparation. The most fascinating feature is Sheen recreating famous interviews given by Clough. Sheen didn’t memorize responses and instead answered off the top of his head as an uncanny Clough, representative of just how much he had prepared.
Also included are two historical segments giving a more straight biographical account of Clough and a twenty-minute primer on the state of football in the early ‘70s. Throughout every feature, it’s evident that the filmmakers were fastidious in their preparation.
The film looks spectacular in its Blu-ray transfer, and Hooper injects it with a great energy. From the shot framing to the choice of lenses to the rhythm of the editing to the widescreen vistas, the film’s stunning visual flair matches Clough’s bombast and enthusiasm. Even with the great visuals paired to Sheen’s magnetic performance, though, this is still going to be a tough sell for non-football fans.