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The Damned United Trailer: A Troubling Hint of Sanity

The first trailer for The Damned United, Columbia’s film adaptation of David Peace’s literary adaptation of Brian Clough’s non-adaptation as manager of Leeds United in 1974, hit, or, to be more precise, gently bopped TV screens last Friday. Football fans seem generally excited about the movie, but I’m reserving judgment. Brian Clough is cool in the kind of culturally unquestionable way that tends to make filmmakers want to shoehorn their subjects into that continuum of approved visionaries that stretches roughly from David Helfgott to Terence Howard in Hustle & Flow: they’re eccentric, the world hits them hard for it, they hold on, there’s a montage, someone raises his arms on a beach and looks straight into the sun for some reason. That’s really not what I want from a Brian Clough movie.

It doesn’t help my expectations that The Damned United is proposing to take a jittery, fragmentary, stream-of-consciousness novel and filter it through a screenwriter who seems to favor simple lines and clean metaphors (Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen and Frost/Nixon) and a director who seems to like clearly articulated meanings (Tom Hooper, who made John Adams). I kind of liked both John Adams and The Queen, but if the collaboration reduces the actual dangers of Clough’s personality to a vaguely inspiring story about a genius who was different from everybody else and screwed up sometimes but was still really funny and saw things in his own special way, it’s going to be too bad.

What I’m afraid of, I guess, is that the combined intelligence of the filmmakers will be applied to the task of middlebrow simplification. I fret, on the evidence of The Queen, about overarching stag metaphors.

So I don’t quite know what to make of this trailer. The 70s look pretty good here (if a little too brownly stylized,  à la The Last King of Scotland) and I love the Muhammad Ali opening. But the rhythm of the whole piece has a quaintly danceable, Fox Searchlight quality that seems to suggest a movie for New Yorker subscribers on their monthly night out. (The movie isn’t even slated for release in the US yet, I realize.) I’m shrinking in fear from lines like “If you want to be loved, you’re going to have to change”—a Theme, by God!—and, worst of all, “Without me…without somebody to save you from yourself…you’re nothing!” I hope Peter Taylor never said that to Brian Clough, and I know Timothy Spall should never say it to a movie audience.

This all sounds too harsh. It’s just that I’d love for this movie to be good, and I’m afraid that what it’s going to be instead is praiseworthy.

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The Damned United Trailer: A Troubling Hint of Sanity

by Brian Phillips · January 26, 2009

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