The thrill of defeat

The Damned United packs worthy kicks and a redemptive spirit onto a gloriously muddy soccer field

If talent translated directly to celebrity, Michael Sheen would be Hollywood's biggest name, yet Sheen has the uncanny ability to so completely dissolve into a character that you're convinced you've never seen him on screen before. It's a pretty neat trick, considering the acclaim he's received for playing British icons Tony Blair and David Frost. But anonymity should only get harder after glimpsing his latest award-worthy performance as the cocky, borderline egomaniacal English football coach Brian Clough. 

A prodigious goal scorer on the pitch, Clough was as swift with his tongue as with his feet, and by the late '60s he'd talked his way into a gig managing a scruffy squad, Derby County, in the muddy midlands. It was here that he first ran afoul of his eternal nemesis, coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney), whose Leeds United teams in those days were a near unstoppable juggernaut. 

In their first encounter, Revie steamrolled Clough so hard he didn't even pause to examine the carcass, and Clough never forgave him for it. Leeds and Revie became Clough's white whale, and through force of will and pure spite, he drove lowly Derby all the way to the top-flight championship, with the thunder of glory ringing in his ears. And Clough couldn't resist the chance to take over his old rival's job when Revie got promoted to the national team in 1974. Clough's new gig was an outright disaster: He marched in and called his new players cheaters and divas, and the team promptly sank. He was shown the door within six weeks. 

The Damned United was adapted from a novel about real people, and what it lacks in factual accuracy it makes up for in cracking spirit. Screenwriter Peter Morgan (who also wrote Sheen's other hits The Queen and Frost/Nixon) makes the material accessible for those who wouldn't know a bicycle kick from kick in the face, and pushes the universal theme of the wages of obsession forward. It's also the rare sports film that's really about failure and its attendant misery and what it takes to pull up off the turf and get back in the fight. 

Sheen gets excellent support from a stalwart crew, including the dependable Meaney and lovably gruff Timothy Spall, as the dirty-work assistant who scouts players and cleans up Clough's messes. 

Director Tom Hooper's style is sort of detached, but he does a nice job of making the drab, rain-soaked and shabby stadiums of '70s soccer into battlefields of epic grandeur. 

A folk hero in England, Clough was so brash and outrageous he was once called out by the grandmaster of trash-talk Muhammad Ali, but Americans unburdened by nostalgia will enjoy Sheen's stunning performance on its own brilliant merits. He's equal parts fool and a champion, a man who learns nothing from victory, but everything in defeat.

At the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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