While it may not be fair to call Damned United a sports film for folks who don’t like sports films, it’s a damned close call. A typical anti-type scene in this true-life saga about the brief coaching life of football (aka soccer) manager Brian Clough finds him hunkered down in the locker room as his former team wins a decisive game. Where are the old sports-movie cliches of a struggling team that works through hardships toward that triumphant and climactic game? Nowhere to be found, really, and it only adds to the charm.
This is a behind-the-scenes sports tale, for a change, and also a character study about the power of rivalry and fighting the good fight from the managerial/coaching perspective. The factual backdrop of Peter Morgan’s script, an adaptation of David Peace’s book, covers a brief period in the professional life of Clough, who went from a minor coach to heading the Leeds United team in the early ‘70s, fueled partly by a fierce competitive drive to one-up a former rival coach.
Up front and center among the film’s virtues is the thespian angle. Historical figure specialist Michael Sheen, so sharp and locked in character as David Frost in Frost/Nixon and as Tony Blair in The Queen, gives a fleshed-out and lived-in performance as Clough. He’s full of cunning and charm when needed, with a brute determination beneath the surface. Vulnerability and self-reflection arrive later, necessary traits to make peace with his faithful friend and ally Peter Taylor (played by Harry Potter‘s Timothy Spall).
Telling the tale engagingly, the film works its way backward and forward, chopping up chronology to dramatic effect and juicing up a story that might not seem so exciting to those of us non-sports-inclined types. Another reason to see this film is cinematographer Ben Smithard’s disarmingly bold visual elements, with odd compositions and use of light and vintage film stock effects you wouldn’t find on ESPN. Art slips in the side door, to winning ends.