Monday, August 2, 2010

The Damned United

When you watch a sports movie, you think you know what to expect. It's all leading up to that last match or event. Usually the team or the hero wins, like in Hoosiers. Sometimes, the team or hero loses but exceeds expectations, like in Rocky. In Rudy, getting on the field for an actual play in a game that counts is marked as a victory.

I hope I haven't spoiled any of these movies for my readers. If so, in my defense I would say the newest of those films was released seventeen years ago and you really should get out more often. Or maybe rent a DVD now and then.

The Damned United is a sports movie based on a true story. The world of English football in the late 1960s and early 1970s plays a vital backdrop. But the story is really about relationships, and not soccer games. The stars of the movie are the people playing the managers, assistant managers and the owners of the teams.

If someone discussing English football now says "United", you can be pretty sure they are talking about Manchester United. West Ham United are usually shortened to "The Hammers", and while they are in the Premier League currently, the Hammers are usually at the bottom of the league table and Man U is at the top. In the 1970s, The Damned United were Leeds United, a team that is lucky to get a sniff of the Premier League these days. 1966 was the glory of English football, when the country that invented the game won its first (and so far only) World Cup, beating West Germany 4-2 in overtime. Sadly, it was all downhill from there. The English qualified for the 1970 World Cup, but were beaten in Mexico by the eventual champions Brazil in the round robin stage and lost to West Germans as well in extra time in the knockout stage. In 1974, it was even worse, as England failed to qualify for the main tournament.

The rest of the world decided to get more fit. The English decided to get more violent, and it didn't work. They hired Don Revie as their manager, taking him away from perennial thuggish champs Leeds United. The Leeds management made the very strange decision to hire Brian Clough, a manager deeply critical of Revie's style to take Revie's place. Much of the movie is about that tumultuous tenure.

Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon, plays the very outspoken Brian Clough. Colm Meaney, best known to American audiences for his work on Star Trek:The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the older and more cantankerous Don Revie. Two other key roles are Timothy Spall as Clough's clever assistant Peter Taylor and Jim Broadbent as Sam Longson, the chairman of Clough's prior team, Derby County.

If those four actors are not incentive enough for you to see the movie, nothing else I write will change your mind.

I very much liked The Damned United and recommend it even to people who don't like sports movies or soccer. This is a movie about relationships and a damned good one at that. I went on to see if there was a single movie where I didn't like Timothy Spall, whose best work may very well be with the director Mike Leigh in Topsy Turvy and Secrets and Lies. My unsure recollection was in fact correct. Timothy Spall is always good, and all four of the lead actors are equal to the task.

Watch this movie. It may surprise you. This is not a spoiler.


Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

It's the best film I've seen all year.

namastenancy said...

Did you ever see "This Sporting Life" with the late Richard Harris? I think it's one of the best movies about the brutal nitty gritty of the sports world and one of Harris' best performance.

Matty Boy said...

Hey, Monkey! It's the best thing I've seen for a while as well.

No, Nancy, I had heard of it but not seen it. It's available for instant viewing on Netflix, so I have put it in my queue.