You don’t need to know who Brian Clough was nor follow professional soccer to realize what a rich and complex, powerhouse performance Michael Sheen (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) delivers as the arrogant, abrasive soccer genius who inherits the championship team of Leeds United in 1974, when its long-time manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), departs to lead England’s national team. Within 44 days, Clough self-destructively abuses his power, alienating not only his veteran players but also management and fans, winning only one game out of six before he’s deservedly sacked.
To put his insensitive, egomaniacal behavior into context, there are continual flashbacks to Clough’s earlier years when he, along with his perceptive assistant Peter Taylor (pitch-perfect Timothy Spall), propel the low-ranked Derby County team into the First Division, often antagonizing the franchise owner, Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent). But during this tenure, Clough develops a pathological antipathy toward intimidating rival, Don Revie, and the overly-aggressive Leeds United team, based on sportsmanship slights which are either real or imagined.
“Your mad ambition takes over and destroys everything that’s good in our lives,” Taylor astutely observes. But his warnings about leadership and loyalty go unheeded until – finally – Clough gets his comeuppance and realizes what an idiot he’s become and that he cannot succeed alone.
This marks the fourth collaboration between Michael Sheen and writer Peter Morgan, who based this screenplay on a 2006 fact-based novel written by David Peace. While Peace dwelled more on Clough’s alcoholism, Tim Hooper (HBO’s “John Adams”) tips his direction towards Clough’s smug charm and innate desire for recognition, while faithfully chronicling his foul-mouthed, borderline psychotic blunders and emphasizing his integral partnership with tactician Taylor. Ben Smithard’s imaginative cinematography captures the dismal Midlands weather and Eve Stewart’s production design reeks with authenticity, matching the historical newsreel footage.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Damned United” is a sporting 7. Problem is: on this side of the Atlantic, it’s hard to sell a biopic when movie-goers have little awareness of either the subject or British soccer history.