Brian Clough was an arrogant and outspoken soccer manager so famous for his willingness to give the press an uncensored comment on any subject that Muhammad Ali once asked, “Who does this Clough guy thinks he is?”
“The Damned United” the new film about Clough’s disastrous 44-day tenure as manager of Leeds United, does a great job at depicting Clough’s arrogance, but falters when trying to show what made him brilliant.
Clough’s tenure with Leeds is a fiasco from the start. His first day on the job he gives an interview where he calls out Don Revie, the legendary coach he is replacing, and the Leeds players for dirty tactics- never mind the fact the team has been the best in England for almost a decade. Clough confidently tells his interviewer “If the players were having fun they wouldn’t have played that way.”
Starring:Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall
Runtime: 97 min
Michael Sheen does tremendous work here. Sheen plays Clough as bundle of ego, passion and self-destructiveness. The film wants you to believe that Clough was driven to the peak of his profession after feeling insulted by Don Revie for not shaking his hand after a match. In the hands another actor, that scene might not have played, but if any man would be insulted and obsessed with a personal slight so tiny, it would be Sheen’s Brian Clough.
It is when trying to show us Clough’s talents where the film stumbles. The film suggests that Clough relied on his loyal assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), to find him talented players and much of his failure in Leeds can be tied to Taylor’s absence. There is never any talk about tactics or training methods that would separate Clough from any other coach. While the film suggests Taylor was key to Clough’s success, there is not enough time given to the relationship to show us that.
Peter Morgan, the film’s screenwriter, has proven adept at putting a historical event into context by focusing on a relationship between two people with films like “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon.” But here he seems to focus on the wrong relationship.
The confrontation between Clough and Revie on a local sports show after Clough is fired by Leeds is electric. Sheen in particular does stellar work in the scene. His depiction of Clough’s crushing realization that he can only blame himself for his failure is powerfully portrayed. Sheen is able to undo all the bluster and bravado of his character with a few reaction shots.
The movie builds to that confrontation between Clough and Revie. It is when the focus turns to Clough’s relationship with Peter Taylor that it seems to loose focus. Up until that point the story had been about one disastrous period in Brian Clough’s life. The final scenes of the movie try to turn the story into one that encompasses his entire career, and in doing so loses much of the power found in his failure.
“The Damned United” is in theaters now.