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Grade: B+Damned United, The (2009)

Director: Tom Hooper

Stars: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Colm Meaney

Release Company: Sony Pictures Classics

MPAA Rating: R

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Hooper: The Damned United

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Well, I might as well tell you now. You lot may all be internationals and have won all the domestic honours 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 fucking dustbin you can find, because you've never won any of them fairly. You've done it all by bloody cheating.
Above are the first words that soccer coach Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) addressed his once hated arch-rival Leeds United players with on the first day of practice. On the surface they appear either the mark of genius or completely foolhardy. Since the film The Damned United is based on a true story as related in David Peace's book, it's the latter. Clough's tenure as Leeds' coach is destined to last only 44 days. But that certainly isn't the main reason to check out director Tom Hooper's film; it paints an enigmatic portrait of a most intriguing and charismatic soccer legend.

Americans generally have no idea about the passions of soccer fans—let alone how big soccer is in England though many have heard about the recent success of Manchester United and have heard about hooligans and the extreme security measures necessary to protect less rowdy fans from them. That is no reason to skip this film, however. You can easily pick up enough cues from the film to pick up essential details to give the story context—how coach Don Revie (Colm Meady) and his Leeds United club dominated English soccer in the early 1970s though they never successfully won the European cup. They were a haughty, proud club that played a very physical (some would term it dirty) style and invariably intimidated other teams and referees.

Enter Brian Clough, who became the youngest manager in British history when he took over Derby County, which was buried at the bottom of the 2nd division at the time. Teaming with supreme talent scout Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), they quickly improved Derby's record by recruiting astutely and forcing owner Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent) to invest in the club. The first year, they even draw top rated Leeds in the playoffs, setting Clough off in celebration and nervously inspiring him to ready the field and locker room for their famous rivals (note how he carefully places oranges in front of each visitor locker). But when Revie ignores his handshake and the Leeds team scores two questionable goals unfairly, Clough no longer respects them—he hates them!

And no one could be a more effective arch rival. Clough is funny and totally outspoken, and outrageous enough to warrant the attention of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, which gives Hooper the opportunity to include a newsreel quip directed at Clough.

That sets up multiple conflicts to come with Leeds United, most notably when its legendary coach is named head coach for England. The club is so used to success that it wants the very best available coach; thus, their management targets rising star Clough.

Avoiding all the standard sports cliches, The Damned United contains some of the most nuanced character studies and moral issues in recent memory. Chief among them is the contrasting personalities of quiet, low-key assistant Peter Taylor and dynamic Brian Clough. Delivering the goods is a top notch ensemble cast headed by two of Britain's finest character actors, who have performed like cinematic chameleon's in films as diverse as The Queen and Frost/Nixon and All or Nothing. Clough refers to his ideals of soccer being a “beautiful game” but the same can be said for a film when egoless acting, tight editing, and intelligent dialogue are all an integral part of the package like they are here.

 


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