Starring: Michael Sheen, Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall
Directed by: Tom Hooper (TV’s “John Adams” miniseries)
Written by: Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon”)
It’s one thing to see a sports obsession coming from rowdy fans in the stands of a soccer match, but it’s an entirely different story when the mania is coming straight from the sidelines in unhealthy doses. In “The Damned United,” two-time Oscar nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen”) adapts author David Peace’s nonfiction novel about English soccer coach Brian Clough and his desire to prove his worth in the professional English football league no matter how many enemies he makes.
Brian (Michael Sheen) has always been a cocky son of a gun, but when he gets the opportunity to coach the top-rated soccer team Leeds United after he leads a once-lowly second division soccer club out from the bottom barrel, his claws come out. The problem is, up until actually accepting the offer to coach Leeds, Brian was a strong critic of the championship team and their iconic longtime coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney). Not only does Brian hold a grudge with Don for an unintentional snub in the past, he publicly voices that he thinks the team only wins championships because they cheat. When he gets to Leeds, he intends to bring “good, clean, attractive football” to the area.
It won’t be as easy as it sounds, however. The players aren’t thrilled that one of their biggest detractors is now their coach and is trying to change the way they play the game. Brian has also never coached a team without his scout and assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), who is angry with his friend for sticking his foot in his mouth one too many times. His outspokenness is one of the reasons his last boss Sam Longson (Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent) never supported him when Brian would go behind his back to recruit players and act like he owned the team.
As Brian, Sheen does a masterful job turning this talented coach into a hybrid character. There are times where Brian’s sheer enthusiasm for the game is contagious. Other times, Brian’s “mad ambition,” disregard of humility, and his ongoing rivalry with Don make it hard to sympathize with him. “Fire is good,” someone tells Brian, “but sometimes fire destroys everything.”
Still, this is what the character calls for. Sheen, who also portrayed characters written by Peace in “Frost/Nixon” and “The Queen,” really accentuates the ugliness of the sports world through his personal vendetta with everyone who chooses to disagree with him and his inattention to his own faults as a human being.
Along with his performance, “The Damn United” is an engaging film that isn’t just for fans of soccer. It could have followed any other sport or other life situation and built these strong characters and themes around that and it still would have been a relatable story. Credit Morgan’s script and director Tom Hooper (“John Adams”) for crafting something that could have been ordinary into an unbeatable sports drama.