By their nature, most sports flicks benefit from the viewer’s familiarity with the game. Americans, therefore, will be a step behind in the case of “The Damned United.”
This British import is about infamous soccer manager Brian Clough, an abrasive fellow known as much for his brazen public persona as he was for the successes of his teams.
Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon”) is excellent as the cocky Clough, a mouthy fellow who had the ability to rub people the wrong way. His greatest successes came in the 1970s and, because of his public self-assuredness, he was dubbed the “British Muhammad Ali.” (In one amusing scene, we see the real Ali call him out on TV.)
But you don’t necessarily have to be a soccer fan to appreciate this story of a driven leader who apparently wasn’t nearly as confident as his braggadocio would have you believe.
The film marks the re-teaming of Sheen and screenwriter Peter Morgan who wrote “Frost/Nixon.” Like that earlier film, “The Damned United” is a biographical flick that concentrates a bit more on personality than events.
Indeed, you don’t need to know much about soccer to recognize the dramatic tension and passion of a person as driven as Clough.
As the film begins, Clough has just been named the manager of Leeds United, the best team in England. Through flashbacks that zip back and forth from the late 60s during his days with the lowly Derby squad to the mid 70s with Leeds, we learn how he got to this position.
We also learn the origins of the tensions between Clough and Leeds United’s previous manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney from “Law Abiding Citizen”).
The film maintains that without his assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall from “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”), Clough would have been a failure. In fact, their breakup and subsequent reconciliation provides the movie with its most emotionally satisfying element.
Although the movie is filled with a terrific cast of British veterans (Oscar winner Jim Broadbent is appropriately narrow-minded as a club executive), “The Damned United” serves mainly as a star vehicle for Sheen. As such, it works relatively well.
Director Tom Hooper (TV’s “John Adams”) manages the seesaw narrative quite well, so that the fractured timeline doesn’t become too confusing.
The biggest problem with the film is its finale. Just when we get to what would normally be an eventful climax, the movie simply ends, followed by a scroll of info and photos of the real Clough.
That leaves us with Sheen’s memorable performance…and he carries the day. (R) Rating: ***
* Avoid at all costs
** Only if you're bored
*** Good movie
**** Well worth your time
***** Be sure to see it