The Best Sports Film That's Not Really About Sports
Someone with video editing skills should put together a series of Michael Sheen’s performances for the YouTubers, just to demonstrate the British actor’s unbelievable range. Sheen — who has played David Frost, Tony Blair (thrice), a werewolf (thrice), and even a hard-partying cross-dressing homosexual — is one of the few lead actors working today who actually has the acting range of a one of the better character actors. He’s damn near unrecognizable from one role to the next, and though I hate the idea of him appearing in next month’s New Moon, it’s nice to know that — at age 40 — Sheen will finally receive some mainstream recognition, even if it’s for playing a vampire villain in teen vampire porn.
In The Damned United, which was released in the UK months ago but is just making its way to American shores, Sheen plays Brian Clough, one of the best, most storied, and outspoken English football (soccer) managers ever. Although he had quite a bit of success in the late ’70s and beyond, The Damned United focuses specifically on his short, 44-day reign in 1974 as manager of one of the most popular soccer teams in England, Leeds United, and — in flashbacks — how he was able to rise to the position.
In short, Clough and his scout/assistant/best friend, Peter Taylor (the always excellent Timothy Spall) took a scrappy, crappy Derby County team from the bottom of the second division to champions of the first division, which is tantamount, I suspect, to managing the Pittsburgh Pirates to a World Series win over the New York Yankees. However, as manager of Derby County, Clough — who insisted that his footballers play clean — had several incidents along the way with the storied Leeds manager, Don Revie, who would eventually leave his post to become manager of England (opening up the vacany at Leeds for Clough). Revie apparently slighted him on several occasions, and encouraged his players to resort to bullying tactics. Clough, thus, built up a lot of animosity toward Leeds and Revie over the years, speaking out against the team on several occasions, building up a lot of inner anger that finally bubbled over when Clough took control of Revie’s old team. He didn’t tone down his rhetoric; instead, he shat all over the former manager and his players’ style of play. His style, too, was in direct opposition to Revie’s — Clough was vain, showy, and pompous, while Revie’s nature was more old-school and gruff. Think Josh McDaniels vs. Bill Parcells (if you’re an NFL fan) or Ozzie Guillen vs. Joe Torre (if you’re a baseball fan). Predictably, the Leeds players refused to play for Clough, and he was ousted after only 44 days as manager, completing a quick fall from grace that he brought upon himself.
I don’t know a lot about soccer, but it’s fairly evident from a gander over on Wikipedia that The Damned United takes quite a few liberties with the story, though the essence and most of the facts — at least with regard to the central time period — remains true.
But what’s remarkable about The Damned United — besides being, arguably, one of the best acted sports movie I’ve ever seen — is that it’s not really a movie about the underdog defeating the odds and hitting a 9th inning homerun to cap a rousing, inspirational come-from-behind victory. Those movies are a dime a dozen. The Damned United focuses not on the game, but on the relationships between the characters. It’s not a sports movie about winning; it’s about the driving force of hatred, about dealing with humility. It’s about the destructive powers of ego, about achieving a lifelong dream only to see it blow up in your face, and about having to deal with the aftermath of that crushing disappointment. There are no moral victories in The Damned United. Brian Clough allowed his arrogance get the best of him, and the lesson here is not to stick steadfast to your principles and ideology. The lesson is that there’s a lot of be said for swallowing one’s pride.
After watching The Damned United, I don’t really know much more about soccer than before, and the fact that it’s still an amazing sports film is a testament to its appeal Stateside. What I do better understand, however, is how that competitive spirit can get out of hand, and how a single-minded focus on the destruction of a rival can lead to your own destruction. And perhaps, more than that, I even better understand what an amazing, compelling actor Michael Sheen is.