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An Ego Flies Out of Bounds

MOVIE REVIEW
The Damned United (2009)

22
Laurie Sparham/Sony Pictures Classics

Sport at the highest levels can very often be boiled down to little more than a clash of egos. For proof, look no further than the me first attitudes of such N.F.L. players as Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, who take to the sidelines, the media and their Twitter accounts to let their favorable self-impressions be known. This fundamental principle applies to the political world as well, the behind-the-scenes complications of which have helped the screenwriter and playwright Peter Morgan make his name with his work on “The Deal,” “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon.”

Although “The Damned United” forgoes queens and presidents to tell the story of a far less distinguished man — the soccer coach Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) — it’s very much comfortable territory for Mr. Morgan. He and director Tom Hooper transform the trappings of a sports movie into an exploration of the dangers of an unchecked belief in one’s self-worth and the ways such unwarranted confidence might affect personal and professional relationships. It’s another tale of the dramas large and small, consequential slights and unrelenting backstabbing that go on behind the throne; and it has a marked voyeuristic appeal.

Given their backgrounds (Mr. Hooper directed the recent “John Adams” miniseries), it comes as no surprise that the film permeates with the filmmakers’ belief that the best way to understand famous events, to make sense of landmark moments in popular culture, is to feel an intimate comprehension of the personalities involved. Although the picture crosscuts between the highest and lowest points of its protagonist’s professional existence, frequently features game action and boasts a wealth of authentic period detail, it’s a story of complex human bonds, not winning or losing at a particular time and place. There’s no big, climactic contest that solves everyone’s problems, and the most important battle being fought is that between the main character and his personal demons.

As Clough, who parlays his success as the head coach of the smaller Derby County club into a disastrous 44-day stint at Leeds United, Mr. Sheen gives a performance that never grates or simplifies the man’s contradictory impulses. He perfects the slick huckster persona that turns off so many of his Leeds players, smiling vapidly and practically sneering as he offers one put down of his team after another. At the same time, as the character steadily disappears into a lonely isolated shell, the actor lays bare the overwhelming panic and mounting self-disgust that forms beneath his ever more overwrought, misleadingly confident exterior. Mr. Sheen’s work is a convincing manifestation of the motivation the filmmakers suggest to have been behind Clough’s entire career: his jealousy of his highly respected, successful predecessor at Leeds, Don Revie (Colm Meaney).

Timothy Spall, as Clough's long-suffering assistant Peter Taylor, brings to the part a dignified calmness. He appropriately contrasts Mr. Sheen’s expert capturing of his character’s snide hyperactivity, while never failing to impart Taylor’s firm belief in his methodology. The partnership they develop — rife with its ups and downs — believably reflects the dynamics of any longstanding professional relationship to have achieved such heights of success. Their work gives the picture the dramatic heft it needs to tackle a narrative far beyond the purview of a standard sports flick: the story of a man at war with his worst impulses.

THE DAMNED UNITED

Opens on Oct. 9 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Tom Hooper; written by Peter Morgan, based on the novel by David Peace; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Melanie Oliver; music by Rob Lane; production designer, Eve Stewart; produced by Andy Harries; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Michael Sheen (Brian Clough), Timothy Spall (Peter Taylor), Colm Meaney (Don Revie) and Jim Broadbent (Sam Longson).

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