Tuesday, November 17, 2009



THE DAMNED UNITED is not the cornball, Hollywood feel-good drivel kind of sports film that we have been conditioned to expect. THE DAMNED UNITED is based on a non-fiction book that gives an historical retrospective of British soccer. Like most sports films it is about winning. But at its foundation it is about something much more significant to the human experience than just winning a championship or “finding that spark.” When the credits roll at the end, the concern has little to do with the concept of winning or the game of soccer and a whole lot to do with the human experience and the value of relationships.

Seriously, how many sports films are out there about a motley crew that rises above its limitations? In this cliché scenario, the misfits need to make it to the championship and possibly not even win the final contest to prove that they are more than a conglomerate of human waste. Such a theme has been in film for generations. THE BAD NEWS BEARS, SLAPSHOT, SUNSET PARK and more have followed this path. Sometimes, as in films like ROCKY, RUDY or more recently, THE BLIND SIDE, the spotlight rests upon one player that needs to prove that he has what it takes to be a winner. But THE DAMNED UNITED takes a refreshingly different perspective on the sports film in that it isn’t about the athletes; it is about the management.

UNITED starts with Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) taking the management position for Leeds United, the best soccer team in Britain, 1974. Jogging back and forth in its timeline from 1968 to 1974, we are treated to the internal workings of Clough and what he went through to get to manage the top football team in the country.

When Clough arrives five days late to his first day on the job, the atmosphere is already uncomfortable. Clough is full of ego though, claiming “Brian Clough, Uber f*cking Allies,” in regards to how he plans on being remembered. Clough is talking about making a soccer family, but the film is already revealing that he has lost sight of what a family really is. On his way to Leeds, Clough gives an interview at Yorkshire Television studios in which he publically eviscerates the previous coach, Don Revie (Colm Meaney). The rift that Clough feels between himself and Revie is personal and not about one coach doing a better job than the next. This film is about what events built up to that interview and all the damage that has been done to Clough’s personal life.

The late 60s footage shows Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor (HARRY POTTER’S Timothy Spall) as they hammer their little Derby soccer team into first division champions. There is a lot of hustle, and in Clough’s case, there is the beginning of some seriously unhealthy ego. UNITED plants its emotional germs in these scenes with precision. Clough’s commitment to Derby is demonstrated as is his commitment to good sportsmanship. When Revie comes to town with the team from Leeds and Clough sees what this team of plebian champions is doing to the sport of soccer, he becomes obsessed: Derby must beat the Leeds team at any cost.

The scenes depicting the early years of Clough’s career focus on family and the connection between Taylor and Clough. The men are close. Taylor feeds Clough crisps as he drives to proposition a potential player. They comprehend and compliment each other. More than once Clough gathers Taylor’s face in his hands and plants a juicy, crowd-pleasing kiss on his cheek. It is all hetero though. Taylor has his wife and kids as does Clough. The emotional bond between the two men is strong, and their mutual desire to make Derby formidable strengthens it even more.

In 1974 when Clough shows up to take his position as the Leeds United team manager with no Taylor and no wife in tow, just his two boys, the story is ripe to be told. What went wrong? Taylor and Clough were on their way to the top and seemed inseparable. Whatever happened, it has taken its toll on Clough, and he takes Leeds into its worst season in 20 years, so much so that he is “sacked” from the team.

People who want to see some good soccer, game fouls, and bodies twisted in a muddy field won’t be disappointed. This is definitely a sports movie, but it is much more concerned with the ego, needs, and character of the managers, chairmen, and people making the decisions about teams behind closed doors. Beautifully filmed (some of the British countryside shots captured are downright dizzying) this film takes on the spirit of that early 70s era and flaunts it without the blatancy of other recent 70s salutations like the gaudy BANK JOB. Familiar faces are in place as well. Stephen Graham (Tommy in SNATCH) plays Leeds’ snotty team captain Billy Bremmer. Chris Ineson (Finch in the British OFFICE) is onscreen for a hot second as a television journalist. There is even a period piece featuring Muhammad Ali referencing Clough enclosed to seal the time-capsule deal. Cigars are smoked, and the kids are reading their WIZARD comic books. When things are happy in this film, it feels sincere to deep levels of the soul. So when it all unravels, the pain is acute and the solution seems completely out of reach.

UNITED plucks the heartstrings, but is mindful of the over-pluckage that sports films have been guilty of in the past. Make no mistake, the testosterone in this film can barely be contained, and it is completely concerned with pride and arrogance. Clough and Revie are men who don’t bend easily. But the delicate, redemptive third act demonstrates the choice to bend.

The conclusion of the film is satisfying. It ends on a note that makes a viewer envious of the emotional world that is presented in THE DAMNED UNITED.

-Mediasaurus Rex

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