Judge Clark Douglas thinks this little film is a damned good one.
They love him for what he's not—they hate him for what he is.
"Well, I might as well tell you now. You lot may all be internationals and have won all the domestic honors there are to win under Don Revie. But as far as I'm concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest #$%&ing dustbin you can find, because you've never won any of them fairly. You've done it all by bloody cheating."
Facts of the Case
In 1974, ultra-successful English football (soccer, in case you're a puzzled Yank) manager Brian Clough (Michael Sheen, The Queen) took over as manager of the very popular and very successful Leeds United club. His time in that position lasted an infamously short 44 days. The Damned United is the story of what happened during that period and the intriguing events that occurred in the years leading up to it.
It all begins with an unintentional slight. The year is 1968, and the esteemed Leeds United team is coming to face off against Brian Clough's much less prestigious Derby County club. The manager of Leeds is the beloved Don Revie (Colm Meaney, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), a legend of the game whom Clough has greatly anticipated meeting. However, when Revie and his team arrive, the legendary manager walks right by Clough without shaking his hand. Revie didn't mean anything by it; it's just that he didn't see Clough in the midst of all the hustle and bustle. Still, Clough cannot regard the incident as anything less than the most personal of offenses. With a glare in his eye and a sneer in his voice, Clough determines to do whatever it takes to destroy the saintly Revie in the years that follow.
At first, he attempts to do this in his role as manager of Derby County. This is partially due to Clough's gifts as a manager, but largely due to the savvy behind-the-scenes work of Brian's assistant and best friend Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall, Enchanted). They make an incredible team, but as time passes Clough manages to become increasingly insufferable to the people around him, not least of all Derby County Chairman Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent, Vera Drake). By the time Revie retires from Leeds United and Clough is offered the job, our protagonist has turned into nothing short of an egomaniac. Taylor chooses not to follow him, as Clough has simply grown too self-absorbed and unappreciative of Taylor's friendship and skills.
The film's take on Clough's legendary 44-day run as manager of Leeds is a compelling one: Clough failed in his task because he was never as interested in running a successful football team as he was in demonstrating his general superiority to his predecessor. He dramatically changes the way the team is run, not so much because he feels it will make them more successful on the field but rather because it means things won't be the same as when Revie was running them. The problem is that Revie was a smart and successful coach, so Clough is essentially attempting to fix something that was never broken to begin with. The one-sided conflict culminates in a surprising and fascinating television interview reminiscent of the better moments in Frost/Nixon (which also starred Sheen and was written by The Damned United scribe Peter Morgan).
However, the emotional core of the film lies in the relationship between Clough and Taylor. Though Clough certainly has more than his share of flaws, the film doesn't depict him as a complete monster. He's just a man who was too eager to buy into his own inflated public persona, losing sight of his perspective as a result. There's something very affecting about the interactions between the two men, particularly during the film's concluding moments (which are somehow simultaneously sad and heartwarming).
The cast is nothing short of remarkable throughout. Sheen is quickly establishing himself as an expert in the field of portraying memorable British icons, and his work in The Damned United ranks as one of his best performances. The frozen stiffness that somewhat hampered his portrayal of David Frost works wonderfully for Brian Clough, as the manager publicly petrifies in a passive-aggressive fury. Timothy Spall is equally good as Peter Taylor, providing the film with some of its finest moments. Spall is so fascinating to watch in this film; even during the scenes where he's not the center of attention his behavior is nuanced and intriguing. Colm Meaney brings an old-fashioned integrity to the part of Don Revie, while Jim Broadbent does some memorably bitter cigar-chomping as the increasingly irritable chairman.
The film's visual palette is appropriately dour and overcast, but the slightly bleak imagery looks quite strong in hi-def. Background detail is terrific throughout; you can see every blade of grass on the football field. Blacks are deep and inky and facial detail is strong, too. A couple of brighter sequences pop off the screen with vibrancy, but these moments are (appropriately) few and far between. Flesh tones are a little off at times, but otherwise I have no complaints. Audio is just fine, though the football games aren't as immersive as you might expect them to be (this is largely due to the heavy use of stock footage and older audio during these scenes). The soundtrack comes through with warmth and clarity, offering an appealing blend of era-appropriate songs and Rob Lane's melancholic score.
A decent batch of extras is included on the disc. The best of the batch is an audio commentary featuring director Tom Hooper, actor Michael Sheen and producer Andy Harries. It's a very engaging listen that offers a steady stream of compelling info on the making of the film and the real-life inspiration for it. "Perfect Pitch: The Making of the Damned United" (16 minutes) is a respectable making-of featurette, "Creating Clough" (10 minutes) puts the spotlight on Sheen, "Remembering Brian" (9 minutes) offers memories of Clough from friends and family and "The Changing Game: Football in the 1970s" (19 minutes) is nice piece on the history of the game. Finally, "Cloughisms" offers a batch of extended interviews filmed for the movie and the disc is equipped with BD-Live.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie is very English and doesn't really offer a whole lot of context for viewers who know nothing of people like Don Revie and Brian Clough. Don't get me wrong, the movie is strong enough to work for viewers from all walks of life, but spending a little bit of time reading some Wikipedia articles might go a long towards deepening one's appreciation of the film.
The Damned United is a dramatic gem that's well worth seeing, even if you've never heard of Brian Clough. The Blu-ray release provides a fine transfer and an appealing batch of extras, too. Highly recommended.
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