' Cinema Romantico: The Damned United

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Damned United

The Cult of the Coach holds powerful sway in the sporting arena. Coaches are paid lordly sums. Their clichéd spew is figuratively bronzed as incisive philosophy. Statues are erected in their honor. Stadiums and streets are named for them, often while they still walk the earth. Typically coach-centric sports films cast the protagonist as a leader of men, a playing field variation of a military commander who decrees he is not the players’ friend (Coach Herb Brooks) and that he will break ‘em down and build ‘em back up (Coach Norman Dale) all as a means for a singular third act triumph. “The Damned United”, however, Tom Hooper’s 2009 generally fact-based tale, is something different, a character study of a coach less a metaphorical General than a cocksure CEO and forced to square with what his egomania has wrought in spite of all the success.


The film jumps around in time, chronicling how Coach Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) scraps through the finicky ranks of English League Football, but its epicenter is his hiring and stormy tenure as head man at Leeds United, an ultra-successful club under Don Revie (Colm Meany) until he agrees to coach England’s national team. The opening sequence is telling as Clough, in his first day on the job, speeds his car right past the Leeds' Stadium, frivolously singing along to Tom Jones on the radio, and to a TV studio to do an interview. That he would prefer talking to a reporter before he even talks to his team betrays his belief that image is everything. So too does Sheen’s manner in these scenes betray the way he plays the whole part, humorously cocky and drunk on his own genius, wringing an incredible amount of smarm just from his smile.

At Derby County, an outpost in the Second Division, sort of the Conference USA of the English League Football League, the low class clawers and scratchers fighting to move up to the First Division, Clough initiates a run of unprecedented success which culminates in winning the 1972 championship, the squad’s first ever. His achievements, as Peter Morgan’s screenplay makes clear, are rooted more to force of personality, going over the club owner’s (Jim Broadbent, a sneaky performance that morphs from folksy to wannabe baller) head to get what he wants to rack up victories. It is also, however, rooted to imported talent, and that talent is scouted and lured by Clough’s faithful assistant coach, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). Yet with Derby’s prosperity, the more hot air gets pumped into Clough, the closer he gets to dousing his most vital bridge in gasoline and taking a blowtorch to it.

The players may bring about the victories but the players, none of whom we get to know at all, are beside the point. No, what drives Clough above all is the vicious spite he feels toward his predecessor. It is a spite rooted in a snub told at the film's start and in Revie’s preferred tactics of brutality that Clough feels are mucking up the beautiful game, and in taking the job at Leeds he seems more committed to not doing things the Revie Way than in earning victory. Hooper routinely sets in-game shots so that little of the game itself is actually seen, rather turning them into staring matches between Clough from the coach’s box and Revie from the stands. Their rivalry pulses through so much of the film, in fact, it’s easy to wonder if Clough is purposely running Leeds right into the ground.


He isn’t, of course, because the real-life Clough didn’t, and so we arrive at the inevitable point in the review where mention must be made of the real-life Clough’s family declining participation in “The Damned United.” They also spoke out against the book on which the film is based, written by Pat Murphy, because it painted the coach in too harsh of terms. In an effort to enlist the family, the filmmakers chose to lighten the tone, with producer Andy Harries on the record as saying: “In quite tough times, we wanted to make a film with an upbeat ending - you come out of the cinema thinking it was an enjoyable experience and that Clough was a good guy.” Eh. Well.

This reviewer is an idiot Yank, which is to say I knew next to nothing about Clough going into the film and which is to also say I did brief research on Clough and the “facts” upon watching the film. In that undersized capacity, it would appear that “The Damned United” attempted to shoehorn a rather complicated fellow into a more easy-to-digest narrative, whereby he is made to learn a “lesson” by film’s end and what and whom is most important in The Game Of Life. Yet Sheen’s performance resists that can o’ corn arc and, more importantly, his ultimate groveling (literally) at the feet of Peter Taylor and admission that he needs his old assistant as much as his own massive wit reinforces (unintentionally?) the very conception it seems to be trying to refute……the cult of the coach.

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