It seems inevitable that at the end of every seemingly high-stakes athletic game, we hear somebody say, “I would like to thank God for our win,” but never “I would like to thank God for making everyone else lose.” Which seems unfair — after all, anybody who’s ever engaged in or observed any kind of competitive activity can attest to the fact that half the fun often isn’t just winning; it’s watching other people get fucked by the crushing agony of defeat. “The Damned United,” directed by Tom Hooper (“John Adams”), a biopic about legendary British football coach Brian Clough’s 44-day tenure as manager of the Leeds United, is perhaps one of the only sports movies that explicitly deals with the other primary motivating force in athletics: absolute hatred.
The movie begins with Brian Clough (Michael Sheen, “New Moon”) taking over the position of coach for the Leeds United, (the country’s best soccer team). From that early scene, Clough makes it clear his primary reason for leaving the team he loved to coach Leeds is to humiliate former manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney, “Law Abiding Citizen”). Subsequently, the movie alternates between flashbacks of Clough’s meteoric rise as the manager of his former team, Derby County, and his downfall as Leeds’ manager. Clough, so consumed by his desire to escape Revie’s reputation, sacrifices the actual managing aspect of his job.
Despite having only a few minutes of actual game play portrayed onscreen, the movie never fails to convey the energy of the sport. The editing of sports footage is effortlessly cohesive, and the movie carefully balances the tension between its alternating storylines without seeming gimmicky or convoluted. During a climactic faceoff between Derby County and Leeds, Clough chooses to stay inside, below the rafters, interpreting the cheers of the crowd rather than facing the psychological strain of watching the game play out. It’s a testament to the movie’s artistic prowess that a series of static shots like that carry a visceral suspense that outweighs almost anything seen in modern sports movies.
Unlike screenwriter Peter Morgan’s previous efforts with Sheen (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen”), “The Damned United” owes a lot less of its charm to sharp dialogue and almost all of it to Sheen’s consummately charismatic performance as Clough. During the scene in which Clough meets with his new team for the first time, he proceeds to accuse them of being complete cheats devoid of personal integrity. Yet, as an audience, we don’t become outraged until offended Leeds players push Clough to the ground.
How can the asshole equilibrium be so completely out of wack? Consider the movie’s climactic television interview scene, in which Morgan blatantly rips off himself. Revie essentially calls out Clough for being a total egomaniac who completely deserves the incredible failure he sustained. Each of Revie’s claims is true, yet at most we feel Clough is misguided. The easy answer would be to say Sheen’s performance is simply more likable than Meaney’s — and this is true — but this doesn’t explain why his character is likable even when he operates independently of others.
Consider another scene in which Clough has just pulled off a tremendous victory — he declares afterward during a television interview, “I wouldn’t say I’m the best manager in the country, but I would say I’m within the top one.” Considering the statement is engineered to make him sound like as much of a douche as possible, it’s surprising that in times of victory our support of Clough is unhindered by his towering hubris. In fact, it’s only later in the movie, when he sustains repeated failures that we begin to grow angry with Clough — suddenly, it becomes unjustifiable. In the movie’s virtuosic final scenes, Clough returns from the television interview with Revie to apologize to his co-manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall, “Appaloosa”), who he abandoned for Leeds. Clough is forced to literally get on his knees and profess his undying love for Taylor (half-jokingly). Obviously it’s a sobering moment for Clough, but it’s one of the happiest moments in the movie; not because Clough is reforming his habits or anything, but because we realize Clough is taking the first steps toward justifying exactly what brought him down in the first place. “The Damned United” might end on a note of modesty, but it still makes clear a very human fact, the reason for our empathy with Clough: we all want at least the opportunity to be an asshole.
4 stars out of 5.