Review by Nathan Samdahl (B+)
In the latest British historical film from the Oscar-nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), The Damned United is a sports movie not really about sports, but about the crazy personalities that populate them. Certainly on a much smaller scale than Morgan's previous two films, the story here is probably one not known to most outside of Great Britain, or to most non-soccer fans (i.e. the majority of Americans). Despite this, the film is in many ways more satisfying to watch than Frost/Nixon or The Queen.
This satisfaction mostly comes from watching Morgan's fave Michael Sheen deliver his best and most noticeable performance to date. I say "noticeable" because he finally plays the character that people will take away from the movie, unlike Frost/Nixon where Frank Langella stole most of the accolades and The Queen where the contemporary figure of Tony Blair overshadowed Sheen's great character work. In Damned United, Sheen is manager Brian Clough, the star, an unpredictable, ruthless, cocky asshole that you love (or hate, but in a good way).
Structurally, the film operates in two time periods, in the present (1974) where Sheen's character takes over Leeds United (English soccer/football's best team) replacing the team's most accomplished coach Don Revie, and in the past (about five years earlier) showing Sheen's rise from his humble yet wildly successful beginnings as coach of a couple lower division teams. One of my only issues with the film is that the initial sequences in the past take a while to get going or at least get to the core of the film (Sheen's competitive feud with Revie). I found the 1974 sequences much more engrossing and was a bit bummed to get pulled away at the best parts to jump back in time. However, the film quickly picks up steam in both time periods and finishes strong with a great scene involving Sheen groveling to his longtime assistant manager Peter Taylor played by Timothy Spall (who he undeniably needs to succeed).
This film may not immediately appeal to everyone given the subject matter, but once audiences realize the movie is primarily a great story about the friendship between two men (Clough and Taylor) and the long-simmering feud between two egomaniacs (Clough and Revie), more interest should be created. If nothing else, see the film because Sheen, Spall and Revie (played by Colm Meaney - yes, from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine for all you Trekkies out there)) are all outstanding. Or see the film because overall all it's one of the better ones out there in the thus-far barren wilderness of 2009 films.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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