Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Agony of Defeat: The Damned United

Imagine Billy Martin managing the Boston Red Sox and you will have an idea how shocking it was when fiery football (soccer) coach Brian Clough was hired by his former foes Leeds United. Clough clashed with both his players and management, resulting in a brief but humiliating tenure. Yet throughout it all, Clough always has a sound-bite ready in Tom Hooper’s The Damn United (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

A former player whose career was cut short by injury, Clough has very definite ideas about how the game should be played. His preference for finesse over thuggery was not shared by his Leeds predecessor and archrival, Don Revie. Clough must face a mutinous team still loyal to Revie, without his trusted assistant coach Peter Taylor, who United clearly suggests was the real football brains behind Clough telegenic smile.

United is an oddity among sports films because it hardly shows any sports, aside from a few disastrous practice scrimmages. For Clough, the battle is joined not on the playing field but in television studios and in newspaper headlines—and he’s got game.

Written by Peter Morgan of The Queen and Frost/Nixon fame, United is a very shrewd depiction of the tabloid-oriented sports media and ruthless front office politics. However, the constant flashbacks to Clough’s early days building Derby County into a contender (while stoking his resentment of the arrogant Revie) could lead to whiplash for the audience.

Frequent Morgan collaborator David Sheen, whose past roles include Tony Blair and David Frost, again plays a public figure that lives and dies by the media. He delivers Clough’s signature self-aggrandizing quips (“I certainly wouldn’t say I’m the best manager in the business, but I’m in the top one”) with cheeky charm without sounding irredeemably egotistical. Timothy Spall, a familiar face from many Mike Leigh films, nicely counterbalances him as the salt-of-the-Earth Taylor. However, the balance of the supporting cast comes across as relatively undistinguished sporting film stock figures.

United perfectly recreates the drabness and peculiarly 1970’s ugliness of depressed industrial Britain—exactly the sort of environment that often relies on the local sports club for vicarious fulfillment. However, perhaps due to its divided narrative or its deliberate decision to focus on one episode of futility from Clough’s otherwise storied career, United runs out of steam before delivering the promised knock-out punch. Sheen’s Clough is definitely an entertaining figure to spend time with, but Morgan’s screenplay does not have as much zip as his previous work. It opens Friday (10/9) at the Regal Union Square 14.