28 October 2009

The Damned United, A Damn Good Sports Movie


I love sports and I love movies. When the twain meet? Not so much. Most sports movies are cliche ridden, emotionally manipulative fantasies.

Most exceptions to the rule have come in the form of boxing films. Indeed I found enough good boxing films to compose a blog entry of my 11 favorites and with some really good ones left over. I'd be hard pressed to name 11 good movies from all other sports combined. But as of today I've got one I could add to such a list. Namely The Damned United which has only recently hit theaters here in the colonies.

Michael Sheen stars as English football (that's soccer to you Yanks) manager Brian Clough whose glory days stretched from the 1960'a through the 1980's. Sheen has now convincingly portrayed three famous Brits, two of whom are very much alive today, David Frost in Frost/Nixon (2008) and Tony Blair in The Queen (2006). No word yet whether he'll be playing Ricky Gervais or David Beckham anytime soon.

What makes The Damned United so different from your traditional sports film is that it's closer to being a riches-to-rags story than your usual rags-to-riches. No, our protagonist does not end up down and out, but this is a story of mid career failure in a life marked by soaring success.

Clough was, as most great coaches are, charismatic and Sheen captures that. I wanted to jump on screen and play for the man, quite unlike the players at Leeds United who he alienated seemingly to a man during his brief stint there. Clough was a man of strong opinions that he expressed without filtering. If you liked him he was refreshingly honest. If you didn't like him he was an obnoxious braggart. It wouldn't surprise you at this point if I were to reveal that he had an enormous ego. Again a characteristic shared by many of the greats in the world of sport.

Such a massive ego can have disastrous consequences. Blinded by our sense of purpose in life we can lose sight of the fact that there are fellow travelers along with us. Many of whom we rely on. No man is island and all that. Suffice to say that while ruffling some feathers, Clough cut off his nose to spite his face to mix some metaphors.

As we see in The Damned United, when Clough succeeded all glory, in his mind, went to Clough. When he failed others had let him down.

The manner of Clough's failures and success and whether he learns his lesson is best left to be discovered by seeing the film.

Question: Did I especially like the film because of my experiences playing soccer and coaching it and because of my knowledge and love of the British game? Sure. That said the film will have its appeal to Americans. After all the movie transcends sports and the minor cultural and vernacular differences between the world's two leading English speaking nations. In great measure Sheen is responsible. He has a wonderful screen presence, combing both a handsome face and a likable persona. He also is a damned good actor. No more example need be given than to repeat his success at playing a troika of recently famous figures. In this latest instance we see a man who previously looked and sounded quite like Blair and Frost, look and sound one helluva lot like Clough.

The Damned United also benefits from excellent directing by Tom Hooper who'll likely not be a relative unknown for long. The mixture of archival footage is often seamless, as good as you've seen. The rest of the cast is a who's who of British supporting players: Colm Meany, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent and the always wonderful Stephen Graham, an inspired choice to play the pugnacious Leeds midfielder Billy Bremner. The film captures the intense love and hate that is British football (why on earth Americans adopted the name football for the sport with the funny shaped ball and all that tackling is beyond me). I'm loathe to say that the Brits are more passionate about their football than Americans are about theirs or any other sport. Actually I believe they are but it's an impossible thing to quantify and thus measure. It is in large part different because of the geography of England is so different with all these teams crammed onto that island right next to each other. There are also less other sports diverting a fan's attention. In America a disappointed baseball fan might at the end of the season point with hope to his favorite basketball team's forthcoming campaign. In England a football fan is much more attached to this one team and does not find solace in other sports.

The Damned United gives a feel for this passion and the mythic figures that have bestrode the British football world. It is like an inside look into how one such person ticked (sometimes when he maybe should have tocked.)

This is what sports movie can and should do. Instead of tugging at our heart strings with sentimental pap they should provide the sort of life lessons that are inherit in athletic competition. When playing or rooting on your team athletics is very much about winning and losing. But stories of sports can explore so much more. We've had quite enough of last second touchdowns, stunning upset victories and improbable comebacks. Real sports has enough of those and they're completed unscripted and far more fantastic to behold.

Sports is an integral part of most cultures, certainly every dominant one in the world today. It thus deserves better tellings with the kind of depth and meaning provided by a film such as The Damned United. Either that it should be left alone by films entirely. That would be damned shame.


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