INTERACTIVE (Rate the Review) . "The Damned United"

Sports has its share of bad boys, and the media turmoil they stir up often seems attractive material for drama. But, just because it's sports doesn't mean a movie will pay off. Unless the subject of the film is widely known beyond those who ardently follow the games, the potential demographic of audiences willing to pay theatrical admission prices will be limited. Not that there isn't a buck to be made, but given the setting of 1960's and 1970's England and the limited following of soccer in the States, you'd have to say about this one that the goal of any sized hit will be elusive, especially in a territory where most of the natives don't even know it as football.

The story of Brian Clough (Michael Sheen, "The Queen") is one such case. The account begins around 1974, when he has won the hallowed spot of team manager of Leeds United, filling the space previously occupied by his arch enemy and bitter rival, Don Revie (Colm Meaney, "Layer Cake"). Though revered for his macho approach in making Leeds reigning champions of English football, Clough has been battering Revie for years about his team's technique of aggression, over-the-line brutality and plain cheating.

The politics behind their getting away with that style of play for so long is another case of a winning team intimidating those commissioned to uphold policies and laws. Clough's Herculean task now is how to change the bullying mind set and culture of an ageing team that has always fed on the Wheaties of applied injury to their competitor. The damned United.

Not being at all reticent about self-promotion, with a more than a little aggrandizement thrown in, Clough boasts of bringing a change about for the media. And, at least, he has the courage to stand before his new men and demanding attitude adjustments. He's never very far from being belligerent, but attempts to inject a sense of conscience and sportsmanship into his boys doesn't get him very far.

The film darts back and forth in time like a ball in play--in an effort to show what put Clough in a place to be considered for his new office at Leeds. At a slightly younger age, we see him and his trusty assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall, "Sweeney Todd") devising strategy and making brilliant signup choices in filling in weak spots for Hartlepool and Derby County. That partnership, seemingly indispensable, fell apart with great rancor when Taylor refuses to leave his comfort zone at Derby, however, and Clough is alone at the helm of Leeds.

The issue of understanding the English language as its spoken with sometimes horrendous accents in the land of its birth is not as difficult to understand as it is in many films that come to us from the British Isles, probably due to Sheen and Spalls extensive work in American films. But, easy understanding of all the finer points pertaining to soccer, to the politics, to upper management as represented primarily with Derby Chairman Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"), etc. may leave some gaps for American audiences in the issues surrounding the events and decisions.

Understanding is clear enough for the central matter of Hough's tendency to overreach and deny limitations, including budgetary restaints. His testiness extends to arguing with Longson over money for players deemed essential by Clough. While the thrust of the film is in the nature of Clough and how he deals with the task that places him in such an intense spotlight, writer Peter Morgan and director Tom Hoooper's emphasis keeps them away from the minds of the players where so much of Clough's drama is decided. As far as I could tell, the team's initial enmity toward their new manager seems to show no sensibility or mature effort to be anything but Revie's boys.

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Should that element of the story been given greater weight and probed for team psychology? I can't help the feeling that it would have engaged me more and provided crucial information. As it is, I'm sure it plays better for the Brits who would relate to the story from a level of familiarity with and, perhaps, strong opinion of the man at the outset. My hope for something more universal was based on the notion of a sports film that was more of a character study than your standard arc of a season affecting some player or coach who finds redemption or vindication.

Brian Clough may have captivated his country with his combination of belligerence and brilliance, but the issues he created as detailed here fail to ignite my fascination for him or further my interest in the game or the movie. Maybe if I were a Brit. It's well acted and photographed. I'll give it that.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Michael Sheen as Leeds Manager Brian Clough
Greeting "his" team, coming off the football field.

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