On the Field

'The Damned United' tells a 1970s British soccer tale in an engrossing way

If you were a huge fan of British soccer in the 1970s, then The Damned United is exactly the Brian Clough biopic you've been waiting for. It's got all the Brian Clough goodness you need, including Clough's awesome meltdown with Derby County, the ensuing debacle at Leeds United, and the heartwarming relationship between Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor.

But let's just say, for the sake of argument, that you haven't memorized the starting lineups of all the third-division teams for the last four decades, and you don't know the specifics of Don Revie's unsuccessful World Cup bid, and "Brian Clough" is just a meaningless string of letters to you. Would you still enjoy The Damned United?

Quite possibly. Clough's is an interesting story: He was a third-division (sort of like minor-league) soccer coach who, in four years, took his team to the national championships and on to the European cup. Clough is played by Michael Sheen, who gives his usual star performance. Since he's now played Tony Blair three times and a werewolf four times, Sheen seems like the perfect pick for the part of one of England's best soccer coaches. (Soccer coaches are, of course, 3/7 prime minister, and 4/7 were-creature.) Sheen is endlessly fun to watch; his David Frost in Frost/Nixon and his Tony Blair in The Queen are both impeccable, but his turn in The Damned United makes a serious case for not only being his best work, but also some of the best acting of the year.

He's backed up nicely by the supporting cast, who were all chosen for acting chops and not for pretty faces. Timothy Spall, who's probably best-known to American audiences as Wormtail in the Harry Potter movies, but who has 99 other credits, has combined a blubbery-cheeked sweetness and pathos with an iron-hard pragmatism in the part of Clough's sidekick, Peter Taylor. Jim Broadbent—who is also, like all British actors, best-known to Americans for his work in the Harry Potter series—gives a spittingly evil performance as Sam Longson, the tightfisted owner of the team Clough coaches. And Colm Meaney—who, because he's actually Irish, has a special governmental exemption from serving in the Harry Potter movies—takes the role of Clough's rival, Don Revie, and gives it a complexity that far exceeds what you'd normally find in a portrayal of a hard-nosed sports figure.

But it's not just the performances that make The Damned United so entertaining. The story—which, as far as I know, is true—is completely engaging. The film moves back and forth between Clough's time with Derby County's soccer team, and his later, brief career with Leeds United.

At Derby County, he took a third-division team (roughly equivalent to American Double-A baseball) and powered them up into the first division. But it wasn't solely his coaching skills that did it: Clough was motivated by revenge. In 1968, first-division team Leeds United, led by Don Revie, played, and beat, Derby County. At the end of the game, according to Clough, Revie did not shake his hand. Clough then became obsessed with beating Revie, leading to a decade-long struggle that eventually saw Clough humiliated on live TV.

But even that excellent story is not the biggest draw, at least for me. I'll always love the look of the '70s, but a problem in Hollywood re-creations of that era is that everything is presented as new and clean. I'm sure there was plenty of new, clean stuff back then, but the '70s were also a period of economic depression, and for a lot of people, the dominant style was chipping paint, institutional hallways and smoke-stained walls.

And in The Damned United, the seedier side of the era is perfectly captured. Derby County has the look and feel of a true, third-rate sports team. The hallways leading to the locker room are narrow, with cheap paneling painted a fading, chipping, industrial green. The conference room's ceiling is lower than Karl Rove, and the showers are tiled in grime.

And in a perfectly shot sequence, Sheen, as Clough, scrubs those tiles in expectation of the arrival of first-division Leeds United. He waits patiently in his cramped home, paneled in thin wood, decorated with chintzy dishware, a string-art ship hanging on the wall. The string-art ship, for those born after 1979, was the quintessential middle-class decoration: an image of a sailboat made by nails and string. We denizens of the '70s knew two things: how to make clothing out of pop-tops, and how to make art out of string.

While the acting and story are impeccable, it's the artistic realization of the era that I found overwhelmingly engrossing. Director Tom Hooper splices in newsreel footage and uses processing tricks to create an aged-film look on some of the sequences, blending everything neatly together to re-create an era when professional athletes made work-a-day salaries; celebrities were essentially ordinary people; and status didn't rely solely on, nor demand in recompense, that everything one owns be plated in gold.


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