Desson Thomson movie review: 'The Damned United,' a soccer coach's obsession

By Desson Thomson
Thursday, October 22, 2009; 3:02 PM

Think of the fiercest coach rivalries in sports. Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. Phil Fulmer and Steve Spurrier. Or the two "Reds," Holzman and Auerbach.

Now imagine one of them quitting his team and his most hated rival taking command. At his first meeting with the players, the new coach tells everyone how corrupt and dirty their game became under their beloved former head. He intends to clean house until they do it right, he says. He takes an ax to his predecessor's old desk. Leaves it in splinters. Burns every profile the former coach compiled of league referees and opposing players. Informs the team that anyone even mentioning the old boss will shine his shoes. And he makes immediate plans to sell off the stars disloyal to him, one by one.

That's what happened in 1974, when soccer manager Brian Clough assumed control of Leeds United, England's top club, from bitter rival Don Revie. But as the tart, tender "Damned United" retells it, Clough's story is more than a movie for soccer fans. It's more than a detailed account of one man's petty vindictiveness in a bygone era. It's about how our hatred can consume us so deeply that we lose sight of everything.

There's another powerful reason to watch: Michael Sheen's note-perfect reprise of Clough, who died in 2004 at age 69. The Welsh actor, best known for his portrayals of Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2006's "The Queen" and English journalist David Frost in last year's "Frost/Nixon," has gone beyond mere imitation and into the realm of inspired representation.

Thanks to him, viewers can appreciate Clough the way the British did a generation ago -- as a petulant, warmhearted soccer genius who turned middling teams into champions. Whose withering contempt for his enemies and quotable arrogance were matched only by his unabashed affection for his nearest and dearest. Whose northern, working-class manner -- his soul was planted firmly between Andy Capp and the Beatles -- became his badge of honor.

"I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the country," Sheen's Clough says at one point. "But I'm in the top one."

Director Tom Hooper (who helmed the miniseries "John Adams") and screenwriter Peter Morgan (who also wrote "The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon") have done a superb job of making the facts and stats of a specialty sport wonderfully accessible to those who wouldn't know -- or care about -- an offside call if you explained it with chalk and blackboard. What matters here are the brilliance and flaws of a great coach -- or manager as the British call the position -- who lost perspective.

We understand the source of Clough's animosity toward Revie. How twinned in destiny they were. Both were born in the same northern industrial town of Middlesbrough. Both were offensive players for Sunderland's soccer club. Both played for England. Both were obvious contenders to coach the national team, a much coveted position in British sports. And neither liked losing to the other.

The filmmakers also take us back to a time when soccer was a real contact sport. Working-class fans watched games in standing pens known as terraces. Soccer pros ran around in tight shorts, their mullets undulating in the crisp November breeze. They smoked cigarettes at halftime. Referees did little to stop defenders hacking the legs of their opponents. And by Clough's reckoning, Leeds United was the New York Yankees of the bone-splintered heap. The best and the dirtiest.

The movie, adapted from David Peace's celebrated, fact-based novel of the same name, makes Clough into something of a moral figure, as he assails Revie's tactics without compunction. But of course, the moral lens turns on Clough, too. We take measure of the man, not just by his enormously entertaining digs at Revie and his Leeds players but by his genuinely warm connection with his sons and his longtime assistant, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). Clough and Taylor are practically husband and wife, as they move from team to team.

When they part company so Clough can run Leeds, it's the beginning of Clough's descent into the dark side. His 44 ill-fated days at Leeds constitute the most disastrous chapter of his career. And yet, there's something about this larger-than-strife figure that tells us that Brian Clough is going to find his way -- in the only way he can -- by taking the hardest, most controversial route possible. That becomes our entertaining article of faith.

Thomson is a freelance reviewer.


R at Gallery Place and Landmark's Bethesda Row. Contains profanity. 97 minutes.

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