Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Damned United

My first go at this notice was a rambling thing on endings and how they make or break the picture sometimes; but I couldn’t really see the point of going on and on about it for so long - three big, thick paragraphs - because in the end, the ending doesn’t really doom this picture. In fact, a lot of people are probably going to like the ending, because it’s heartwarming. I’m not necessarily against heartwarming, when it works organically within the framework of the story. Here, it’s rather a dutiful sort of heartwarming - and it takes away from the larger point that the film is trying to make.

This is the story of British football manager Brian Clough, who was young and brash and very talented in the early 1970s when he and assistant manager Peter Taylor led the Derby County team from the bottom of the second division to the top of the first division, unseating the mighty Leeds United team, led by the legendary Don Revie. It also has to do with Clough’s brief tenure as manager of Leeds United - and this is most likely what you heard the movie was about when someone told you about it or you read something about it on the magic Internets; and while it does have to do with that brief tenure with Leeds, it’s just as much about how Derby comes up from the bottom as it is about how Clough fails so spectacularly with Leeds.

Michael Sheen does a terrific job playing Clough, blending the manager’s smooth arrogance with just a trace of uncertainty in places, which helps to reveal Clough’s human side. Interestingly, not much of Clough the manager is shown - mostly what we get to see is Clough the personality, playing the roles of manager, friend, rival, husband, and father; and Sheen gives us different shades for each of these roles. And while that arrogance is in full flower, it is not an artificial or misplaced arrogance; it comes directly from the fact that Clough is, in fact, a very talented football manager.

He’s so good, in fact, that you have a hard time believing, as the story unfolds, that he might fail so spectacularly when one of the best jobs in British football pretty much falls in his lap. There is some arrogance in the way he treats the Derby County chairman - played by Jim Broadbent - but mostly this has to do with Clough going out and recruiting talented players whose high salaries the chairman bristles at having to pay; but the result is that Derby County rises, to the point that they are the best team in the country.

The film moves back and forth in time, with one thread showing the rise of Derby County and the other showing how Clough fails to have the same kind of success with Leeds United; and at first, I got the feeling that it was a tricksy sort of ploy to keep you from noticing that the story wasn’t very interesting - but after I thought about it for awhile, I changed my tune. (It probably didn’t help that some of the early things I read on the film were somewhat negative.) In fact, what happens is that Clough effectively turns Leeds into a no-win situation - largely because of a perceived slight he experiences when Leeds comes to town to play Derby. Clough is excited to meet the Leeds coach, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), a legend in British football coaching - but when the team arrives, a press gaggle sweeps Revie away, and he misses the chance to shake hands with Clough, who has been working hard at playing the host.

Based on what is shown, it’s impossible to say whether Revie meant to avoid Clough or if it was just an accident because of the way that the press was hounding him; but Clough saw it only as disrespect, and he allowed that tiny little blip on the radar to color his ambitions and his opinion of Revie. When Revie left Leeds to coach the national team, Clough swept in and told his new players basically that the Revie era was over and that they were going to be a higher quality team that played fair and won matches the right way; but in his single-minded pursuit of the excellence that Revie achieved, Clough failed to win the hearts and minds of his new players

The structure may be slightly gimmicky, but in the end it does a fine job of building carefully toward a tragic ending; and it’s precisely the way that the story is structured that lets us see not just the fact of the ending’s inevitability, but also why that end becomes inevitable. Near the end, Clough agrees to an interview with the television station that interviewed him the day he came to work at Leeds - without being told, prior to agreeing to the interview, that Revie would also be participating. The back and forth between the two coaches is quite animated, and the audience learns important things about both Clough and Revie. The conclusion of the scene is very powerful - one of the best moments in the film.

The final scene, between Clough and his former assistant, Taylor, is obligatory from a narrative perspective - but is nonetheless a throwaway, and (for me, at least) takes a bit away from what was otherwise a very strong film. The story as a whole piqued my interest sufficiently to seek out a copy of the book. Alas, that’s a bit of a tricky proposition for those of us across the pond. The library doesn’t have it, and it’s not in print in the States, that I can find. It’s on eBay, of course - what isn’t? - but I don’t know that I’m keen to pay to have a copy shipped all the way here from England (most of the sellers are Brits). I would have been more critical of the ending if I had written this closer to when I actually saw the movie - but a number of things have kept me from finishing this until now, and my opinion has softened. Much of the rest of the film is very good - Sheen’s performance, in particular, is exceptional - and the ooey-gooey ending just isn’t enough to doom the film overall.

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