‘Damned United’ is pretty darned good

Michael Sheen, left, plays soccer Coach Brian Clough. It's written by Peter Morgan ("The Queen," "Frost/Nixon").
Michael Sheen, left, plays soccer Coach Brian Clough. It’s written by Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”).
(Laurie Sparham / Sony Pictures Classic)
Film Critic

Having the skill to bring authentic stories to forceful and persuasive dramatic life is a gift not all writers have, but no one has it more than Britain’s Peter Morgan. Best known for having written “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon,” Morgan does it again in his potent script for “The Damned United.”

The subject of this excellent film, British soccer coach and manager Brian Clough, is barely known in this country but is as celebrated and analyzed in Britain as is Vince Lombardi, Phil Jackson or Tom Lasorda, though, as it turns out, he’s a lot more controversial than all of them put together.

“The Damned United,” briskly directed by Tom Hooper, who did the multi-Emmy-winning “John Adams” HBO series, is a compelling sports film because on one level it doesn’t seem to be about sports at all. It’s about ambition, betrayal and moral blindness, the tale of a complicated, driven, gifted man whose flaws are so striking they flirt with raising his story to the level of tragedy.

Morgan got interested in this narrative of Clough’s famously abbreviated 1974 stint as manager of the Leeds United club when writer David Peace wrote a critically acclaimed novel on the subject a few years ago. Responding strongly to the work of a kindred spirit who similarly mixed research with fictionalizing, Morgan decided this was to be his next project almost as soon as he read the book.

A film about the complex emotional relationships that develop when men are simply being men obsessed with what they do, “The Damned United” benefits greatly by having four top-of-the-line actors from across the pond -- Brits Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent, and Irishman Colm Meaney -- who not only play the key characters but also actually resemble the people they are playing.

First among equals is Sheen, who’s been David Frost once and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair twice. Here he plays Clough, a man as interesting as any of them and maybe more so, someone who could proclaim with a straight face, “They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I wasn’t on that particular job.”

Known as “the best manager England never had” (because he never coached the country’s World Cup team), Clough never lacked for confidence, to put it mildly. Cocky to the point of smugness, someone who could talk the birds out of the trees and knew it, Clough even caught the eye of Muhammad Ali, who once told him to stop crowding his territory.

Though his notoriously big mouth often got him into trouble, Clough is a great character for Sheen to play because his personal charm invariably -- but not always -- got him out of the difficulty. Sheen captures this duality, showing us a man who was delusional to the point of oblivion about how what he was saying would be received by the world at large.

“The Damned United” opens at the start of a pivotal moment in Clough’s life. Don Revie (Meaney), the veteran crusty coach of powerhouse Leeds United, the dominant force in British soccer, has just resigned to coach England’s national team. Revie’s replacement, however, is not someone he admires but one of his most vocal critics, the man who has become his nemesis: Brian Clough.

As Clough promptly, and astonishingly, tells his new team, “as far as I’m concerned, you can throw all those medals you’ve won in the bin, because you won them all by cheating.” The Leeds players, he says, never played the game fairly, never treated it as the beautiful thing it is. “Things are going to be a little different around here,” he says. He has no idea.

“The Damned United” then cuts back and forth between the startling consequences of Clough’s decision to take the Leeds job and the series of events in the past that led to the poisonous relationship between Clough and Revie and his lads.

That means going back to near the start of Clough’s coaching career: his tenure at humble Division Two club Derby County. He had two advantages in his desire to take the team to greatness: supportive chairman Sam Longson (Broadbent), who viewed him as a son, and a brilliant right-hand man in Peter Taylor (Spall).

An unpretentious operative whose knowledge of soccer was unparalleled, Taylor was the perfect Mr. Inside to Clough’s Mr. Outside. Spall, a splendid actor who doesn’t get the flashy parts, performs the same essential role in the cast that his character does in the film: While Sheen’s role may be more flamboyant, his is just as crucial.

Though it is nominally about what partisans call “the beautiful game,” there’s barely any on-field footage in “The Damned United.” What we get instead is fine acting and directing, splendid dialogue and a story too outrageous to be made up. When you come to think about it, after all, part of coaching is acting a part, and these guys were some of the best.