With his modest looks, receding hairline and jolly, precarious smile, Michael Sheen is the “soup of the day” when it comes to playing historical figures on screen. In Tom Hooper’s The Damned United, which could be considered the final part in a trilogy of English biographical collaborations between Sheen and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), Sheen plays the cocky, outspoken and infamous football manager of the 70’s and 80’s, Brian Clough.
Playing Prime Minister Tony Blair and talk-show host David Frost, Sheen has slipped into the shoes of these seemingly tepid yet charismatic and committed real-life figures with unobstructed ease and mild, respectable results – until now. Before the closing credits, we get to see archival footage of the real Brian Clough, where the resemblance between actor and subject is startlingly revealed. It only confirms what we were eluded to prior – that Sheen, for all of his previous workmanlike endeavors, has pulled off a performance that no other English actor could have inhabited with such clarity and reverberation.
The title, The Damned United – based on a novel by David Peace – refers to the 44-day period in 1974 in which Brian Clough (Sheen) took over as manager of his ruffian nemesis Leeds United after their beloved Don Revie (Colm Meaney) was beckoned by the national club to get England back to the World Cup. The board of the club, in their blind faith and desperation, turned to the rising star of the football world – the film explains why it never worked.
Manager Brian Clough, who would become one of the most renowned football managers in the history of English football, began his career as an easygoing, joyous and agreeable leader of the struggling Derby County in the late 60’s. When coincidentally handpicked to play mighty Leeds United in the 3rd round of the FA Cup in 1968, Clough saw himself and his club as more of a welcoming party than an opponent.
When Don Revie and his ferocious football club (known historically at the time as a group of “dirty” players who take after their manager) treat Clough and his players like an unsightly pest, refusing to shake this unknown manager’s hand, it ignites an unquenchable rage and ambition in the formerly passive manager, who will stop at nothing to gain football glory over Don Revie. Even when a close friendship with Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) is in jeopardy or an unwilling chairman (Jim Broadbent) pleads him to use reason – ambition, like anything else, has its limits.
Through permissive spending, timely scouting and unmatched aggression and commitment, Clough turns Derby County from relegated bottom-dwellers to saintly underdog champions. As the film bounces back and forth from Clough’s Leeds fiasco in 1974 to the Derby County miracle story years earlier, the two sides of the manager’s stubborn, wildfire aspirations are plainly illustrated for what they are: an advantage and a detriment.
TV director Tom Hooper (“John Adams”) and director of photography Ben Smithard capture the rolling hills and cloudy temperament of the North English countryside with a green hue resembling the definable moments before or after a rainstorm. Each scene captures the muddy, wind-swept 70’s English landscape of gritty football, seamlessly co-existing with archival footage of the actual Derby County on the pitch.
The Damned United is a perfectly pitched – if shortsighted and modest – biographical account. In addition to Sheen’s terrific performance (in my opinion, the best of his career), it captures its era and environment with clarity and assuredness before surprising you with its insight and its emotion. At one point in the film, a highly noted and like-mindedly flamboyant and controversial American sports figure is seen on television calling on Clough, this spirited, talkative and contentious English football manager to, “stop it”. “There is only room for one Muhammad Ali in this world,” the greatest boxer of all-time touts.
The relationship is valid, but with one discernible difference. Ali, for all of his opinionated controversies and pre-match jeering, could always rely on the notion that he was, in fact, the greatest boxer in the world, without a flaw. Clough, on the other hand, revealed in a remarkably intimate later scene on a studio set, had to live with the fact that his unruly ambition, not to mention Don Revie, got the best of him.