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The Damned United (Tom Hooper, 2009)

 

     Screenwriter Peter Morgan continues his dowdy, meticulous dramatization of recent history with Tom Hooperís The Damned United. Recounting the tenure of Brian Clough, 44-day manager of British pro-football club Leeds United, and the unlikely journey that led to his post, the movie emerges as a picture of a pigheaded man whose sheer force of will almost seemed capable of taking a country by storm. Itís a showcase role for actor Michael Sheen, who presents an egocentric, narcissistic figure without ever overplaying or relying on mimicked sound bites. We sense his characterís concern when faced with the fact that his teamís performance is largely out of his control once the players take the field as much as we understand his hubris in taking credit for that same teamís performance. This is as good as Sheen has been, frankly. His Clough is a man who seems comprised of equal levels of class anxiety and determination. His work helps somewhat to anchor a movie that often struggles to stir emotional interest in its slavish recreation of sports history.

 

     As one would expect from the man who wrote the screenplays for films like The Queen and Frost/Nixon, some of the characterization here is relayed via dramatic recreations of media events. The first substantial glimpses that we get of Clough and his predecessor Don Revie (played here by Colm Meaney) are in a televised interview and a press conference, respectively. Scenes like these are the least interesting parts of The Damned United, and itís to the directorís credit that he resists including more of them. At times, Morganís script seems so beholden to verifiable fact that it feels more like a term paper than a fictional film. By choosing to show us ninety-odd minutes out of a six-year history, this movie inevitably begins to feel like a truncated assemblage of facts that most of its target viewers are likely to already know. Hooperís direction helps to lessen this sensation somewhat. He shoots many of the scenes using long shots, and when he goes in for a close-up, he often creates an off-kilter or deliberately symmetrical visual effect that resists an easy comparison to what a person watching British television back in the 1970s would have seen.

 

     Much of The Damned Unitedís subtlety and history, I imagine, will sail over the heads of audiences that arenít British. The meticulous recreations of key games that Clough oversaw while in charge of the Derby and Leeds teams will similarly be more thrilling to those already interested in the minutiae of the sport of soccer. With a standing obligation to explain the obvious to non-fans, the abbreviated runtime becomes a liability. Clough goes from underdog to pariah and back again in a matter of moments. The plot structure, which reveals Cloughís eventual assumption of the position as Leeds coach up front, undermines suspense. Worst of all, as supposed tragedy strikes, and as The Damned United begins to focus on Cloughís fall from grace, it devolves into a morass of bitterness, losing even the rooting interest in the underdog that makes the formulaic structure of most sports films forgivable.

 

39 

Jeremy Heilman 

09.04.09