At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Damned United “09”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Sports Drama/Stars: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Jim Broadbent, Andy Graham, Maurice Roëves, Elizabeth Carling, Oliver Stokes, Ryan Day, Peter Quinn, Henry Goodman, Jimmy Reddington, Liam Thomas, Danny Tomlinson, Lesley Maylett, Chris Moore, John Savage, Mark Cameron, Tom Ramsbottom, Matthew Storton, Peter McDonald, Stephen Graham, Bill Bradshaw, Stuart Gray, Alex Harker, Craig Williams, Joe Dempsie, Brian McCardie, Martin Compston, Colin Harris, Giles Alderson, Stewart Robertson, Laurie Rea, Tomasz Kocinski, Mark Bazeley, Mark Jameson, David Stevenson, Nathan Head, Chris Wilson, Ralph Ineson, William Martyn Conboy, John Craven, Tony Gubba, Jimmy Hill, Paul Bown, Barry Davies, David Coleman/ Runtime: 97 minutes

If there is one sport that I don’t think gets even remotely as much attention here in the States than it rightfully should it would be the sport called football. As in the football that equals soccer and NOT giant muscular slabs of beef carrying an angular deficient ball that some teams love to deflate to get an edge on the competition all whilst giving us ads in between that are goofy at best and stupid at worst. Heck when it comes to soccer who needs commercials especially when there is intrigue to be found in equal measure at times both on AND off the field. Especially if we’re talking about English soccer and an individual by the name of Brian Clough who was manager of the iconic Leeds United “football” program….for only 44 days which is nothing to the man himself given what he has accomplished as a manager at different clubs, but is still considered some of the most lunacy-driven and just plain chaotic 44 days in any sport’s history. A bit ironic because despite being a lovely game to watch, football (soccer) is, off the field, a game about equal parts devotion and machinations, enthusiasm and insanity, and of everyone from those who cheer the players on to the players themselves being both proud and resolute enough to try and push their team onward to be the top of the totem pole and have a chance at everlasting glory…..with the exception again of Clough and his time at Leeds. Indeed filled with rancor towards their ex-coach and wanting nothing to do with either the team nor how they operated on the field, Clough’s time at the helm of Leeds was no more and no less than a month and a half of anarchy, a complete absence of respectability, a kidnapping of class, and fueled by a personal quarrel that would see the club, its management, its fans, and just the country of England in general fall into a state of shock as this once-incredible team just fell from its lofty position due to the machinations of the one man who had been assigned to lead them even though he hated them and everything about them with a hearty passion.

The plot is as follows: The Damned United gets underway as we are introduced to Mr. Brian Clough as he is managing a tiny little football team (or club) known as Derby County. A club that is Division 2 yet not even close to being on the press or public radar but that gets a chance to upset the phenomenal and highly regarded Leeds United in a match at the 1968 FA Cup. Yet even though Derby would not come away with the W that day, it would not be the loss, but instead the scorning of Clough by Leeds’ manager Don Revie plus the belief that the Leeds team all played dirty that inserts in Clough’s heart a passionate rancor for anything dealing with either Revie, Leeds United, or both. Be that as it may be, we see that Clough is still able to help Derby achieve some degree of recognition, as well as propel them to the Division 1 league, by bringing on board an old yet still potent player against the desire of the team’s chairman San Longson. However, when Clough’s old nemesis Revie is yanked from his spot at Leeds to help manage the English team that is competing for the World Cup, we see that our “hero” is given the opportunity to coach them instead, an offer he finds too tempting to pass on despite wanting nothing to do with the team in the slightest. So it is that without the aid of his dependable assistant Peter Taylor, Clough takes the assignment and right off the bat makes it clear to the team that he has no love for either them or their former manager. Thus this then would prove to be the start of a downright chaotic 44 day period where not only does Clough burn his fair share of bridges, but Leeds really suffers under his time at the helm to the point that their spot at the top of the proverbial English football totem pole really begins to be called in question….

Now the tale of Brian Clough is one that manages to go beyond the realm of sports and makes for quite riveting movie magic not just because of how engaging this particular story is, but also in how film helmer Tom Hooper showcases it for us from both a visual and pathos perspective. Indeed the main pathos in this slice of cinematic pie most assuredly can be traced back to this one guy as well as this one conflict that were both of perhaps some low-medium degree of significance in the grand scheme of things to the sport at the heart of it. Yet while there does exist an ingredient to this movie that results in everything going on to say nothing of the fallout that it causes across England proving to be thematically riveting to some degree, it is the narrative and the nonlinear manner in which it is regaled to us that is what truly sees this slice of cinematic pie become a riveting and just plain intriguing film. Indeed the utilization here by Hooper of quite a bit in the way of flashbacks in building this narrative via slowly but surely showing us Clough’s time within the world of professional football, but within the framework of knowing ahead of time about both his stint with Leeds as well as his hostility towards both the team and the man who used to lead them actually aids this movie in becoming not only intriguing, but also relevant as well. Thus, this slice of cinematic pie is able to, courtesy of how it chooses to put the pieces of its cinematic puzzle in place, operate in a manner that seems like a wonderful ode to the time Clough spent as the manager of Leeds.

Now even though The Damned United is a movie that has roots from a thematic albeit comedically ruthless perspective, the narrative may be the recipient of some comedic ingredients, but by and large this slice of cinematic pie operates mostly as a through and through drama with quite a bit in the way of genuine pathos encircling just how messy internal machinations in the land of pro sports can have quite the impact on a variety of people. In that regard therefore, The Damned United is not like the vast majority of sports films as this one is not only more about shenanigans off the field of play instead of on the field, but also focuses more so on someone leading a team rather than playing on said team. It also is quite distinct in that the subject matter is playing for dramatics is not a rousing story, but rather a messy and complicated bond that, as the title of the film itself seems to hint at, was damned right from the start. Suffice it to say it’s a wonderful departure from the typical set-up that is seemingly part and parcel for the majority of movies set in the wide world of sports, and this film proves to be consistently enjoyable because of it even though, much like any other truly wonderful movie, this slice of cinematic pie is able to rise above the genre it’s set in and give us a take on something all of us can relate to which, for this film anyway, would be about how hazardous and toxic pride, rancor, and ego truly can be.

Now it should come as no surprise to learn that Mr. Clough’s bullheaded and egotistical manner required no less than a top-flight performance in order to not only pull off, but to also showcase how such a man would find himself able to both ascend the ranks and also be subsequently damned by the world of which he was an integral part. Thankfully Michael Sheen, who has given audiences his fair share of truly wonderful performances proves he is able to step up to the plate and give audiences exactly what they want. Indeed this talented thespian completely sinks his teeth into the role and manages to play every peculiarity about this guy in a manner that is spot-on no matter at what point in time in the narrative we are at. Suffice it to say that Sheen showcases both the arrogance and egotism beautifully and even in moments where the man is a tad bit more humble, there’s still a degree of supremacy that is able to be seen in these moments. We also get wonderful work in this from the always dependable Colm Meany who plays Clough’s self-made nightmare with such wonderful degrees of both assertiveness and mastery even though he is by and large mostly just a bystander and witness to everything going on. Yes his work is a bit more on the low-key side, but it is also equally as potent as the work done in this by Timothy Spall whose screen time requires a bit more from him in the role of Clough’s closest assistant Peter Taylor.

All in all I think it can be easily and safely said that The Damned United is a truly wonderful little slice of cinematic pie that may have a focus on sports, but doesn’t give off the normal vibe that a Sports film tends to. Rather, this phenomenal movie is one that is a drama of the finest caliber to say nothing of the saga of a guy and how a long-held grudge sees a team, the sport they play, and the country they play for thrown into complete and utter chaotic disarray as, for some unknown reason Clough is just not able to keep this iconic franchise the titan of the game that it was before he arrived and after his departure despite doing things with another team that I think it best for you to discover for yourself. Be that as it may be, the sports components in this are a key, but minor detail to the proceedings since this is more about the drama behind the scenes and film helmer Tom Hooper does a wonderful job of getting as much from this distinct narrative as he possibly can while his phenomenal cast all provide riveting performances that aid the narrative without overriding it completely. It is with that in mind that I feel that The Damned United is one slice of cinematic pie that is definitely worth watching regardless of how familiar you are with football (soccer), English football, the man this film is about, or even in regards to what contributions he made to the sport. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Damned United “09” a solid 4 out of 5.