At the beginning of The Damned United, a film whose title refers to the colloquial name for Leeds United, the team is in the First Division, at the top of the English Premier League. The year is 1974, and the team's famous manager, Don Revie, has just been tapped to take over the England National Team, leaving open one of the most coveted managerial positions in football (or what most Americans know as soccer). Enter the tenacious Brian Clough, newly appointed to the job and still spewing residual vitriol about Leeds. Over the next hour and a half, the film connects the dots of Clough's career and pieces together his rivalry, perceived or otherwise, with Revie.
The film flashes back to 1968, when Revie (Colm Meaney) was the ever-prosperous manager of the First Division Leeds, and Clough (Michael Sheen), along with his humble and underappreciated assistant Pete Taylor (Timothy Spall), were managing the Derby County squad, flailing at the bottom of the Second Division. In a random lottery pick, Leeds is chosen to play against Derby, a fact that thrills the provincial Derby County team. But when an exceedingly enthusiastic Clough feels that he has been slighted by Revie, the scene is set for Clough's rivalry against Revie, Leeds, and anyone or anything that stands in his way.
Some British critics have panned the film, both for toning down novelist David Peace's depiction of Clough's superiority complex and for adjusting the facts. It should come as no surprise that the Brits are more than a little touchy about their nation's most beloved sport and its history. For our part, the film can stand alone more easily as a fascinating biopic about a character whose blind ambition, unchecked arrogance, and ham-handed approach to managing is ultimately destructive. ("I wouldn't say I'm the best manager in the country, but I'm in the top one.")
Only after a hearty helping of humble pie do the tides turn in his favor, and then only with the help of Taylor. Clough's ego having apparently clogged his brain for years, he suddenly realizes he cannot go without Taylor. One of the best scenes involves some deserved groveling and a tinge of well-intended humiliation. Having abandoned Taylor in Brighton to become the manager of Leeds, Clough comes crawling back, where Taylor gets him to beg, "Please, please, baby, take me back."
Massaged facts and unfamiliar subject aside, the film is highly enjoyable for all moviegoers, football fans or no. Director Tom Hooper makes the most of a sometimes bleak, retro scene. In the 1970s, Britain's economy was suffering. As a working-class sport, football did not always boast the best facilities, and let's not mention Britain's penchant for rain and cloud-cover. But Hooper makes something beautiful from this palette. The acting is superb, particularly Sheen and Spall. The always excellent Jim Broadbent does a sharp, bristling turn as the often undermined owner of the Derby County team.
For those of us who are football fans, the film highlights a time when the sport was financially challenged; when the perfect green pitch of today was a mud pit; when the thought of paying a professional footballer 300 quid a week was preposterous. But the film makes it clear that British football was on the cusp of all those things, and these changing times provide a fitting backdrop for the vicissitudes of Clough's career.