'Damned United' a compelling film

Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2009

Having the skill to bring authentic stories to forceful and persuasive dramatic life is a gift not all writers have, but no one has it more than Britain's Peter Morgan. Best known for having written "The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon," Morgan does it again in his potent script for "The Damned United."

The subject of this excellent film, British soccer coach and manager Brian Clough, is barely known in this country but is as celebrated and analyzed in Britain as is Vince Lombardi, Phil Jackson or Tom Lasorda, though, as it turns out, he's a lot more controversial than all of them put together.

"The Damned United," briskly directed by Tom Hooper, who did the multi-Emmy-winning "John Adams" HBO series, is a compelling sports film because on one level it doesn't seem to be about sports at all. It's about ambition, betrayal and moral blindness, the tale of a complicated, driven, gifted man whose flaws are so striking they flirt with raising his story to the level of tragedy.

Morgan got interested in this narrative of Clough's famously abbreviated 1974 stint as manager of the Leeds United club when writer David Peace wrote a critically acclaimed novel on the subject a few years ago. Responding strongly to the work of a kindred spirit who similarly mixed research with fictionalizing, Morgan decided this was to be his next project almost as soon as he read the book.

A film about the complex emotional relationships that develop when men are simply being men obsessed with what they do, "The Damned United" benefits greatly by having four top-of-the-line actors from across the pond - Brits Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent, and Irishman Colm Meaney -- who not only play the key characters but also actually resemble the people they are playing.

Though it is nominally about what partisans call "the beautiful game," there's barely any on-field footage in "The Damned United." What we get instead is fine acting and directing, splendid dialogue and a story too outrageous to be made up. When you come to think about it, after all, part of coaching is acting a part, and these guys were some of the best.

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