Forgoing the glory of athletic triumph in favor of administrative rigor, The Damned United is only tangentially interested in the “beautiful game,” utilizing the tension of ranking and rivalry as a metaphor for ego and inadequacy. Told from the perspective of famously vociferous football manager Brian Clough, the narrative corrupts chronology to reflect on the subject at two divergent points in his career, observing the transition from admiration to contempt in the antedated section and the self-destructive nature of the narcissist in the subsequent segment. Despite variations in tone, the fragments are harmonious in their isolation, stranding the viewer on an island of Clough’s design, fortified by his crippling inferiority complex. From this bitter and vain vantage point, Michael Sheen’s interpretation and the work engulfed by it are potent, yet, when truncated at the whim of succinct storytelling, the piece ultimately loses its purpose and panders to the cult of personality.
Filtered in a bluish tint to reflect a bygone era, Damned constructs an England to embody Clough’s inner turmoil, using reenacted press conferences, typography and montage to evoke the muted despair of a rain-soaked newspaper. Its sportsmen are just as dour, even brutish, fabricating a legacy from an anti-authoritarian demeanor and pugnacious style of play, responsible in equal measure for an army of devotees and diminishing returns in international competition.
Once a disciple of Leeds’ and its aforementioned motley crew of footballers, Brian Clough, acting manager of the floundering Derby County F.C., fuels his career on an inadvertent slight from their head coach, Don Revie, weaponizing a fundamental approach to the game as a means to climb the bureaucratic ladder. Through a subjective structure, meant to reflect the progression and end result of Brian’s unchecked ego, the film transforms his roles and sentiments into cinematic signposts, racing from acolyte to enemy to successor to pariah. At the mercy of this perpetual motion and reckless organization, the film can’t help but mirror the manic nature of Brian’s pathology, personifying his sociopathic disdain for collaboration with each crafty shift in itinerary.
While the anatomy of the work functions to expose Brian’s improprieties, it never intends to be an indictment, fashioning genuine moments of empathy from solitary spaces shared between the audience and the subject. For instance, a stationary image of Brian slumped over in a steely, cerulean room resonates with desperation, the facade of self-sufficiency fading with each frantically dialed phone number. Previous shots also focus on Clough’s nervous fingers, whether fumbling with a cigarette or massaging his sweat-soaked neck, replacing obligatory game footage with the anxieties that stimulate his “mad ambition.”
A concluding disciplinary meeting even defines his affliction, capturing powerlessness in a single, cramped zoom. As players and owners thrash out his future behind closed doors, Brian stares at the literal barrier struck between himself and his peers, his sorrow further accentuated by the figurative obstruction developed in his broken mind. This excerpt, if quarantined from a mawkish resolution, represents the vulnerability at the core of athletic and artistic bombast. Unfortunately, sport cinema isn’t known for its self-reflection and this film decides to kowtow to the trappings of audience and genre in its final breath, limiting a man and his merits to a battery of statistics.
The Damned United (Columbia Pictures, 2009)
Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by David Peace (novel) and Peter Morgan (screenplay)
Photographed by Ben Smithard