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A Winning Tale of Failure In The 'Damned United'

What I don't know about British soccer — especially about Premier League soccer in the 1970s — would fill volumes.

And as my interest at this late date in said Premier League circa said decade is next to nil, I'm startled to be saying that The Damned United — a dramedy laying out the dueling coaching philosophies of guys who doubtless meant a great deal to fans, but of whom I'd been blissfully unaware for decades — is enormously engaging.

Enormously.

Michael Sheen, who's been all but disappearing into his impersonations of historical personages of late — Tony Blair in The Queen, David Frost in Frost/Nixon — works the same trick here as Brian Clough, the fresh-faced, high-minded, self-destructive and thoroughly full-of-himself manager of the Leeds United squad.

That may be because he's again abetted by screenwriter Peter Morgan, who shepherded his characters through the psychological duels of those earlier films, and who pits him here against gruff, all-business Don Revie (Colm Meaney), the team's outgoing coach.

In real life, the United's players were so put off by Clough when he arrived — preaching a gospel of clean, foul-free playing that was more or less the antithesis of Revie's approach — that he lasted a scant 44 days as head coach. For storytelling purposes, the very brevity of his tenure makes his a rough ride that can be chronicled with much glee by director Tom Hooper.

It's a bygone era, in which players arrived for games attired in business suits and dreamed not of stellar salaries, but of socking away enough cash to buy a pub and retire to relive their big games there.

The performers, both on and off the field, look enough like the men they're playing that the director can cut to news footage of the actual games on occasion. (At one point, he cuts new footage of Sheen into TV interviews from the '70s, and I'm pretty sure that the man who played David Frost in Frost/Nixon ends up taking questions from the real Frost — a meta-joke of considerable cleverness.)

Morgan's script jumps around chronologically more than it needs to, and spends so little time on the field that soccer fans may feel somewhat shortchanged. But the relationships — particularly the symbiotic one between Clough and his longtime assistant Peter Taylor (Tim Spall), who pointedly declines to come along for the Leeds ride — are so evocatively pictured, and the playing so precisely calibrated, that even a know-nothing like me can get completely caught up. (Recommended)

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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