What I’ve Been Watching: The Damned United (2009).
Who’s Responsible: Tom Hooper (director), Peter Morgan (screenwriter), Michael Sheen, Colm Meaney, and Timothy Spall (stars).
Why I Watched It: From the makers of The Queen!
Seen It Before? Not in its entirety.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 8
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 3 (if only because it’s about sports).
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 7.
And? I hate sports, so it’s not too surprising that I usually hate sports movies, although I will watch one if it’s made by somebody I like, e.g., Robert Aldrich (The Longest Yard) or Robert Wise (Somebody up There Likes Me). I was dimly aware that some part of the creative team behind The Queen, which Madame BOF and I loved, was responsible for this, which was reason enough to give it a bash. It turns out to be Morgan’s fifth pairing with Sheen, who shines in everything from art-house fare to Underworld vampire films, including a quasi-trilogy in which he played former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: The Deal, The Queen (both directed by Stephen Frears), and The Special Relationship.
In between, there was Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, which—if this and The Queen are any indication—I’m sure I will love; meanwhile, Sheen gets rock-solid support here from the likes of Meaney, Spall, and Jim Broadbent. He plays Brian Clough, who brings British football (that’s soccer to you) team Derby County from humble standings to the top of the heap, and then gets the unusual opportunity to replace his bitterest rival, Don Revie (Meaney), as manager of Leeds United when Revie is picked to head the national team. Standing in the way of Clough’s success are the bad blood engendered by his constant criticism of Leeds, and the absence of his trusty right-hand man, Peter Taylor (Spall).
As the film cross-cuts between Derby’s rise and Clough’s brief, stormy tenure at Leeds, Sheen’s excellent performance makes us understand why Clough, whom he resembles rather strongly, was at once charismatic enough to raise Derby’s fortunes and abrasive enough to alienate those he most needed on his side. This is especially so when Derby chairman Sam Longson (Broadbent) calls his bluff and accepts the resignation Clough arrogantly offered on behalf of both himself and Taylor. No sooner have they accepted a generous offer to manage another small team, Brighton & Hove Albion, when Clough is offered the job at Leeds, and they part ways over Taylor’s refusal to renege on their deal.
I would almost go so far as to say that this is only nominally a sports movie, since while it does concern British football teams, very little of the action takes place on the pitch (if I have that term right), and most of it is devoted to Clough’s self-defeating obsession with Revie. Their rivalry is clearly more personal than professional, at least on Clough’s part, springing from an early slight when the two teams first met. It’s interesting that Clough’s and Taylor’s wives are barely seen, since their complementary relationship resembles that of an old married couple and their eventual reconciliation—which, after the fact, led them to even greater triumphs with Nottingham Forest—is both inevitable and heartwarming.