By Christy Lemire
HOLLYWOOD — You don’t have to be a soccer expert, or even know all that much about the sport, to get sucked into the competing personalities and personal dramas of “The Damned United.”
Sure, it probably helps in terms of appreciating some of the details and nuances, especially if you’re a fan of the British football depicted here. But director Tom Hooper doesn’t actually include very much action on the field: “The Damned United” is more about the larger-than-life figures behind the scenes, mainly Brian Clough, the real-life manager of Leeds United for a brief and tumultuous period in 1974.
And you don’t even have to know who Clough was to be interested in him. As he did with his brilliant and underappreciated supporting work as Tony Blair in “The Queen” and David Frost “Frost/Nixon,” Michael Sheen brings this cocky coach vividly to life. It is such a joy to see him grab hold of a starring role like this, and to see him work once again with screenwriter Peter Morgan, who wrote those earlier films.
Morgan just has an uncanny knack for taking powerful and polarizing leaders and making us see them in a totally new and humanistic light. He did it with Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon and, in “The Last King of Scotland,” Idi Amin. Clough won’t be nearly as well-known to American audiences but Morgan uncovers his foibles, his vulnerability, which should make him compelling to anyone.
Based on David Peace’s 2006 novel, “The Damned United” jumps back and forth between Clough’s hiring as the new Leeds coach, following the departure of beloved manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) for the English national team, and the unlikely rise Clough enjoyed with perennial cellar-dwellers, which earned him this esteemed gig.
Under Revie’s reign, Leeds United dominated; think of the New York Yankees in the 1990s. Once the brash, young Clough takes over the job, he insists on changing the players and their routines, seemingly to put his own arbitrary stamp on them and break them of their loyalty to Revie, whom he’d long considered a rival. It certainly doesn’t help that upon his hiring, Clough stirs things up in a television interview by saying of Leeds: “They wouldn’t have played football that way if they were happy.”
Naturally, these skilled and successful men balk. Not only are they disobedient, they’re disdainful, leading to a disastrous season in which Clough manages to hold onto his job for a mere 44 days. (The colorful insults that get hurled provide “The Damned United” with much of its dark humor.)
The real problem, though, is that when Clough takes the job, he leaves behind his trusted and talented right-hand man, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall, winningly scruffy as always). Going it alone makes it clear to everyone that Taylor has always been the brains of the operation. But each of them finds he needs the other — the slick, confident Clough and the reasonable, down-to-earth Taylor — and their separation hurts both men personally and professionally. (It’s the closest relationship we see of Clough’s; his family life is barely fleshed out.)
Hooper, who previously directed the multiple Emmy-winning miniseries “John Adams,” takes a gritty approach both on and off the field which gives the film a sense of immediacy; the emotions seem unadorned and visceral. But by causing you to care about a man you instinctively want to hate, Sheen is the movie’s MVP.
“The Damned United,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for language. Running time: 98 minutes. Three stars out of four.