It’s hard to do a movie about sports without falling into all the trappings of the genre. Focusing on a compelling figure – in the case of The Damned United, a wildly egotistical, spiteful manager – makes the task a little easier.
Thank God, then, for the great Michael Sheen, whose portrayal of British football coach Brian Clough is hilarious, witty, neurotic and brilliant. Sheen, an underappreciated actor who should have been Oscar-nominated for his roles in The Queen and Frost/Nixon, re-teams with the director of those films, Peter Morgan, for a slightly less consequential but no less entertaining look at a man whose wild drive to spite a competing manager led him to one of the most unsuccessful months in British managerial history.
The Damned United is not about football film but rather sees football as a framework for ambition, greed, success, failure, friendship and love. In fact, the film rarely focuses on the teams themselves – Derby County, whose unforeseen success led to Clough being offered the management of Leeds United, the dominant force in football at the time. His 44 days with Leeds is perhaps the most notorious failure in football history.
While switching the narrative between Clough’s time at Derby and his short spell at Leeds can be somewhat confusing, The Damned United succeeds because it is an interesting, compelling character study more so than a “sports movie.”
Rating: 3/4 stars
Starring: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall
Directed By: Peter Morgan
MPAA Rating: R