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The Lens: 'The Damned United' is darn good

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2009 - I'm fairly certain that prior to seeing "The Damned United" I had never heard the name of British football coach Brian Clough. (In fact, everything I know about British football can be summed up in a single sentence: Americans call it soccer.) A quick reference search will reveal that Clough, who died in 2004, is regarded as one of the greatest managers in British soccer - sorry, that's football - history, but "The Damned United," an absorbing new film based on a novel by David Peace, devotes itself solely to his career's most notable failure, his very brief tenure in 1974 as manager of Britain's most popular team, Leeds United.

Failure might be an understatement: Clough (rhymes with "cough") clashed with the owners, insulted the players, won only one game out of six and was fired after 44 days.

You're forgiven if you're already starting to let your mind wander. Sports movies tend to be tiresome and predictable, generally summed up as one of two possibilities: 1) the team wins the Big Game - Yaaaayy!! - because it has Spirit and Character, or 2) (admittedly less frequently) the team loses the Big Game - Awwww! - but it doesn't really matter because it has Spirit and Character.

"The Damned United" isn't that kind of sports movie. And even if you have no interest in who won the European Cup last year let alone 35 years ago, the film transcends the banality of its genre by way of a truly extraordinary performance by Michael Sheen as Clough. Once again playing a historical figure and working from a script by Peter Morgan, Sheen takes the kind of driven, self-confident protagonist of "The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon" (both written by Morgan) and turns it into something both fierce and foolish.

His Clough goes beyond a simple love of his game; he's half salesman, half mad man, so gripped by a sense of his own importance that he simple doesn't understand why the rest of the world doesn't simply step aside for him. If this were fiction, that swagger might be enough to lead a team to the top of the rankings - it worked for "The Bad News Bears," didn't it? - but in the real world Clough's arrogance, compounded by his complete failure at Leeds, turned him into a real oddity, a man with the cockiness of Ali grafted onto the winning record of the pre-'69 New York Mets.

There are other good performances: Colm Meaney as a rival coach, Timothy Spall as his long-suffering assistant manager, and especially Jim Broadbent as the team owner who rubs against Clough and savors his revenge, but it's Sheen's show all the way. It's not a flamboyant blood-sweat-and-tears Oscar-hungry part, but it gets as close to the awkward and embarrassing reality of a complex, difficult human being as any film this year.

Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_QiKT-6hlo

The Lens is provided by Cinema St. Louis.