The Damned United Review
by Brian Phillips · September 24, 2009
I‘m tempted to say it was dark, but it wasn’t; it was just darker than I expected. The book was dark. The book was a kind of mildewy cave of rhetoric that, like Brian Clough himself, could have happily contained your wine collection. The movie was…well, it was a celebration of friendship. Only it was a celebration premised on the fact that one of the friends was an asshole. The other friend, who seemed to exist largely as a giant, floating source of love for the first friend, was cuddly and morally infallible. Like I said. Not dark.
However. Going in, the only thing I knew about it was that the trailer was so not dark it was actually in danger of sparkling, as a result of which I’d spent several months expecting a movie that leaned into a few warm laughs and lovingly fondled my heartstrings. Unlike every other Brian Clough fan in existence, seemingly—I’m going by the bizarre pseudo-controversy that guttered around the book and the movie in England, the thrust of which was that Clough should never be depicted at all except as a perkily simplistic, quippy saint—I wanted a complicated portrait. So the fact that, while the movie did eventually grope around for my heartstrings, it did so while insisting even at the end that its protagonist was still an asshole, and that the neurosis and megalomania that led to his (minor, fleeting) failure at Leeds were also the keys to his (massive, sustained) success everywhere else—well, it seemed like a net win over my trailer-dampened expectations. Honestly, what bothered me most was the cartoon-chipmunk portrayal of Peter Taylor.
The other concern I had going in was that based on their past projects (The Queen, John Adams), the filmmakers seemed likely to aim for a particular kind of streamlined presentation that always makes me feel like the director is stroking my hand and purring, “let me tell you what my movie means”—metaphors that line up too crisply (the stag in The Queen), scenes that underline a single point, and so on. My (inaccurate, but whatever) shorthand for this approach is that it belongs to movies that want to be plays, that want to line up their meanings with an excruciating neatness, while life and good novels never lose an element of the unaligned and the ambiguous. And yes, The Damned United was pretty thematically prim. Actually, the movie felt streamlined to the point that after the first couple of scenes, it didn’t really have anything new to tell us. It informed us at the outset that when he was tempered by Peter Taylor, Brian Clough could use his ego to inspire his players and achieve great things, but when he wasn’t, he couldn’t. And then it went on never challenging that single driving idea in every subsequent scene, until it was tearfully reaffirmed at the end. (Come to think of it, would anyone have disputed it before the movie started?) Well, at least it didn’t sail the H.M.S. Victory across the screen trailing a giant flag that read, “I REPRESENT ENGLAND.”
In the end, I guess, it was a pretty good character study for a football movie. It was also, for a character study, a pretty good football movie. Too nostalgic, I think, but that’s a general problem with depictions of the ’70s in football. (Football writers were kids then, etc.) And it managed to make the game seem exciting and tense without a single Friday Night Lights-style Transcendent Victory Moment, which is actually kind of an astonishing feat for a modern sports movie. My favorite football scene didn’t show any game action at all, but just trained the camera on Brian Clough as he sweated out a Derby-Leeds match from a room inside the stadium, listening for the roar of the crowd to tell him what was happening. The stress of not knowing was more intense than any slow-motion the-cleats-go-into-the-dirt-the-dirt-goes-flying-up re-enactment they could have given us.
So, lukewarmly, yes. But I recommend it.
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