Something may nag at you while watching Michael Sheen in The Damned United. His character, a pro soccer coach in England named Brian Clough, is charismatic and cocky. He regularly reaches for and promises goals that are way beyond his means. And he has a nemesis, another beloved coach of a successful team whom Clough replaced for only 44 days. They bicker on a talk show; Clough harasses him with a drunken phone call.
The cinematic Brian Clough, in other words, feels quite similar to Sheen’s last role as David Frost, the charismatic and cocky TV journalist he played in 2008’s Frost/Nixon. (Last, that is, if you don’t count Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. Which you shouldn’t.) It’s more than a fluke: Both films were written by Peter Morgan, though The Damned United is adapted from a novel by David Peace. The characters’ resemblance isn’t so copycat that it sinks the film, but the familiarity becomes a bit distracting when you start wondering whether a versatile actor such as Sheen will be milked for this one trick from now on. (Advice: Take a break from Morgan, who also wrote Sheen’s part as Tony Blair in
But it’s a quibble in a film whose likability lies almost completely on the shoulders of Sheen’s Clough, whose charm will warm you and whose increasing audacity will make you wince. This true story, directed by Tom Hooper (HBO’s John Adams miniseries), bounces around the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Clough and his savvy assistant, Peter (Timothy Spall), boosted their sorry Derby County team to a championship mostly by signing expensive talent without the general manager’s permission. Their hubris eventually tests their superiors’ last nerve, however, and when Clough submits their resignation—confident they will be begged to stay on—the pair find themselves without jobs. They accept positions with the middling Brighton, though when the top-rated Leeds comes calling, Clough reneges and Peter stays.
The Damned United is less a sports flick than a biopic about a man with “mad ambition.” You get the sense that Clough would be as tenacious in any field, even though he says in an interview that soccer is “a beautiful game [that] needs to be played beautifully” and starts his first day at Leeds by accusing the players of cheating their way to championships. No one at Leeds wants him there; their loyalty lies with former coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney, the character actor with a ruddy mobster’s face), whom Clough dislikes not only because he believes his on-field tactics are suspect but also because Revie once snubbed Clough by not shaking his hand.
The film is also quite unlike a sports flick because melodramatic success isn’t part of the equation—it’s more about personalities and relationships, which ensures that viewers don’t have to love soccer (hello?) to find the film engaging. The arrogant getting their asses handed to them is a familiar story, yes, but also one that the filmmakers and Sheen relay deftly enough to make it worth retelling.