Monday, November 09, 2009

The Damned United

The Damned United
directed by Tom Hooper
written by Peter Morgan, based on the book by David Pearce
Cast: Michael Sheen (Brian Clough); Timothy Spall (Peter Taylor); Colm Meaney (Don Revie); Jim Broadbent (Sam Longson)
(Sony Pictures Classics, 2009, 97 minutes)

When It Reigns, It Pours

I saw this great film, penned by hottest-Brit-screenwriter-of-the-moment Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, Frost/Nixon) and starring hot-Brit-actor-of-the-moment Michael Sheen (he played Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon), at the Landmark over the weekend. I like British soccer and my girlfriend likes British films, so it wasn't a hard sell to get her to go to a movie ostensibly about the Leeds United football club and the dismal 44-day reign in 1974 of its enigmatically brilliant-cum-destructively megolomaniacal big mouth manager Brian Clough (pronounced "Cluff" as in "rough"), a former star striker (251 goals in 274 games for Middlesbrough and Sunderland) who at one time was called the Muhammed Ali of British football for his brand of brash trash-talking.

Besides, though my GF Amy would much rather watch Cops or the Home Shopping Network, she'll tolerate watching soccer games if Ray Hudson's announcing ("I like that crazy Geordie guy - he's funny!") or if Chelsea or Tottenham are playing - the former because she loves the band Madness and singer Suggs wrote the anthem "Blue Day" for his East London heroes...

Suggs Song Blue

...the latter because she loves their Shakespeare-derived name Hotspur (although everyone just calls 'em "Spurs"). She also likes Stoke City because their team name is The Potters (after the pottery industry in Stoke-on-Trent) and Hull City because they make her think of the Rutles song "Finding Your Bride in the Arms of a Scotsman from Hull." Plus she loves all the drunken singalongs in the bleachers and will start laughing the minute she hears a good "Here we go" or "Who are you?" from the stands. So, like I said, it wasn't a hard-sell.

I knew nothing about Clough or the Leeds United "glory years" of 1961-1974 when they dominated English football under manager Don Revie, but I remembered liking Leeds in the early Noughties during their last spell in the top-flight Barclay's English Premiere League - right before financial troubles at the big club finally saw them relegated to the minor leagues in 2004. (They currently toil in the 3rd-tier League One.) Under manager David O'Leary (1998-2002), Leeds routinely finished in the EPL's top five and I loved his lineup, which before financial woes included Robbie Keane, Alan Smith, Jonathan Woodgate, and Australian superstars Harry Kewell and "The Duke," Mark Viduka. I'll never forget seeing "Super" Viduka score four goals to single-handedly lift Leeds over Liverpool 4-3 at Elland Road in 2002. (It's hard enough to forget Viduka as is, because he bears an uncanny facial resemblance to comedian Fred Willard!)

Separated at Birth: Willard and Viduka

Super Viduka's 4-goal spree against the Reds

The big man's deft touch and ability to hold the ball up while being muscled in the box made him the definitive back-to-the-defender striker, the likes of which are only seen today in the form of Chelsea's Didier Drogba or Barca's Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

But I digress...back to the film, which despite all this talk of football isn't really so much about kicking a ball around as about things like male bonding, interpersonal relationships, ego and one man's Capt. Ahab-worthy obsession - not to mention that particularly Anglo "us vs. them" fixation about Northern vs. Southern that dominates all aspects of British sport and culture (whether it turns up in Morrissey lyrics or in rivalries like Mancunians Oasis dissing Londoners Blur). The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips saw the film mainly as the story of a rocky marriage between Brian Clough and his lifetime assistant coach and best friend Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall of the Harry Potter films and BBC TV's The Street). In fact, it was Phillips insightful review "Small Soccer Tale Pays Off Big" (reprinted in last Friday's Baltimore Sun) that sold me, the soccer fan, on this film being more than just an 11-on-11 kickabout. His words, reprinted below, do more justice to this fine film than I am capable of.


Small soccer tale pays off big

by Michael Phillips
Tribune Newspapers critic
October 16, 2009

In most sports movies the big moments are big: Robert Redford's star-spangled mega-homer in "The Natural."

By contrast the best of many good scenes in "The Damned United," a winner for soccer fans and soccer idiots alike, is a small one. Brian Clough, one-time English footballer turned failed manager of the Leeds United club, spends a match alone in the changing room. Through smeared windows we see, and hear, the crowd roaring approval in between tense, uncertain passages of time. Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in "The Queen" and David Frost in "Frost/Nixon," portrays Clough, and he's marvelous, suggesting warring strains of confidence and doubt in his nervous pacing and darting eyes.

Sheen dominates director Tom Hooper's vivid examination of arrogance, pride, Humpty Dumpty-size falls and self-rehabilitation. He is not, however, the whole show. Drama is a balancing act, and one of the great strengths of screenwriter Peter Morgan lies in the way he juggles characters and shifts the expected emphasis from one playing field to another.

Morgan's work for the screen often pivots on a shadowy antagonist, as with dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" (which he co-wrote), or with Richard Nixon in Morgan's own adaptation of his play "Frost/Nixon," or with British royalty as embodied by Helen Mirren in "The Queen." The same strategy applies in "The Damned United" and its use of Don Revie, the successful manager of Leeds United before Clough's disastrous 44-day tenure. The reliable, granite-like Colm Meaney does a fine job with Revie's sneers and smiles, but it's not his story. Nor does "The Damned United" devote much screen time to how Clough and his invaluable assistant manager, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), went on to glory with the Nottingham Forest club.

Rather, Morgan sticks to his dramatic guns and gives us Clough, in present-tense 1974 and flashback sequences, as he realizes how much he needed Taylor, and how much his Leeds players detested him. The crucial story here is about a marriage dissolving and then reconstituting. Clough and Taylor are the symbolic spouses (they had real ones as well). "The Damned United" reminds us that backstage characters often have the most to tell, and Sheen and Spall are both first-rate character men who happen to be tackling leading roles.

The grim Yorkshire weather is captured just so by cinematographer Ben Smithard. The movie gives you its little dose of triumphalism in a coda, but one of the chief virtues of this unusually honest sports film is its determined focus on the losing before the winning, and the hard lessons to be learned from it.

Oh, as a postscript, I have to mention that while attending this weekend's Sherlock Holmes Society event at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, I sat behind a guy wearing a yellow-and-white English football scarf for...Leeds United! I had never seen anyone wearing Leeds gear in all my time in all the soccer bars in Baltimore until that Saturday afternoon. Something must be in the air...a strong Yorkshire draft coming across the pond to Charm City. Anyway, I told the guy about the movie and he was excited...


Blogger Unknown said...

What do you prefer -- soccer or demolition derby?

8:43 PM  

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