Friday, February 26, 2010

Released this week on DVD: "The Damned United"

Grade: A

The events depicted in The Damned United will likely seem new to American eyes, but it's actually the third time they've unfolded.

The first was in real life.

Brian Clough (pronounced Cluff) was a brilliant, fiery soccer player felled by injury and transformed into a brilliant, fiery coach who led a middling team, Derby County, from the lower leagues to the top of the topmost English division: national champions. The whole time, he was obsessed with Leeds United, England's longstanding best club but an outfit notorious for their dirty and cynical playing style. In 1974, their manager Don Revie -- Clough's personal bete noir -- resigned to run England's national team, and Clough, despite all the scorn he'd heaped on Leeds, replaced him. It went badly.

How badly? Imagine, to mix American sports, if Billy Martin or Bobby Knight took the helm of the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons after years of disparaging them, only to get fired from the job after a mere six weeks. That badly.

In 2006, novelist David Peace crafted these events into a brilliant experimental novel The Damned Utd., which penetrated Clough's minds and revealed a feverish mix of paranoia, ambition, jealousy, fear, pride, and, yes, genius. The book took some small liberties with facts, but it dazzingly told not one but two rise-and-fall stories, revealed Clough's dependence on the advice of his assistant Peter Taylor, and turned Old Big Head, as Clough was known, from a fondly remembered comic figure into an almost Nixonian shadow.

Now director Tom Hooper (HBO's John Adams) has filmed Preace's novel, from a screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), and he's had the uncanny good fortune to find in Michael Sheen, who starred in those other films of Morgan's scripts, an eerie simulacrum of Clough. Playing both the spirited up-and-comer in lowly Derby and the imperious self-promoting media darling at Leeds, balancing a happy (if neglected) family life with a constant state of intrigue in his workplace, claiming credit for Taylor's brilliant insights and then disparaging his assistant as too timid to succeed, Sheen's Clough is as good as his Tony Blair -- which is to say he is absolutely remarkable.

Snide and smiley and cocky and neurotic and loving and spiteful and slick and overwhelmed, the Cloughie of The Damned United is as full-blooded a character as the screen has given us in years. Sheen looks and sounds uncannily like the real man (he can even handle a soccer ball, having been a promising youth player), and that's the least of his accomplishments. What he gives us, and why the DVD should appeal to any thinking person who's barely even heard that there's such a thing as sports, is a complete human being of Shakespearean gifts and flaws. At one minute he shouts down to his Derby bosses by declaring himself bigger than any of them; at the next, he scrubs shower stalls because he doesn't trust any janitor to get them clean enough to welcome the mighty Leeds. A whole man lives in those two moments.

Those are the sorts of details in which Hooper is interested, rather than which team won or lost which match. The key events in The Damned United occur not on the playing field but in the interactions between people. Clough regards Revie from a passionate distance; he's snubbed by Review as a young coach; he phones Revie drunkenly to declare that Leeds won't play for anyone else; and he confronts Revie on live TV on the very afternoon of his firing -- an unbelievable moment, yes, but one which actually happened. Vis-a-vis Taylor -- Clough plays Revie's part, underestimating the other man's worth.

The film is richly atmospheric, conveying the dilapidation of Derby's stadium, the cold mud of a soccer field in the thick of an English winter, the garish '70s-style fashion, decor and hair styles, and the ordinary human scale at which sportsmen of the era lived. Alongside Sheen, Timothy Spall is sympathetically timorous and discerning as Taylor, Colm Meaney makes an imperious and obtuse Revie, and Jim Broadbent fills the Derby boss with frustration and righteousness.

The Damned United isn't a perfect film -- in particular, the Clough-Taylor dynamic is presented as a surrogate marriage in too heavy-handed a fashion. But it's a fascinating story about ambition and vanity and pride, and in Sheen's performance and the atmosphere captured by Hooper it contains truly fine and rare things.

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