The Damned United feels like about half of a regular sports movie. It’s been lauded by other critics for avoiding sports-movie cliches; that’s because it never gets to the part of the story where the cliches usually reside. It’s a good reminder that “cliche” is shorthand for “something that works, every time.” Just as stereotypes are often true, movie cliches are often the thing that makes the movie worth watching. Or at least make room for the thing that makes the movie worth watching. But I digress.
Here we have the story of arrogant and talented English soccer coach Brian Clough (played by Michael Sheen,) who took a low-level team to the championship, and then flamed out as the coach of a much more prestigious team, and was fired after 44 days. On this side of the pond, I think it would be parallel to a baseball manager taking the Kansas City Royals to the World Series, then failing to get the Yankees to play .500 ball.
But “United” seems strangely uninterested in English soccer. We spend more time at press conferences than we do at games; at one point, inexplicably, Sheen spends an entire game — and an important one — holed up in his office, and the crowds roar and boo directly overhead. How the heck does one coach a game from the office? Why the heck? This is never explained. A lot of things are never explained – like why Brian Clough is considered such a great coach. From what I gathered, he has a great assistant coach, and consistently spends more money on new players than his owners want him to spend. That seems like pretty lousy coaching, to me.
“The Damned United” is the first real failure of the teamup between screenwriter Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen; The Queen was ten times better than this, and Frost/Nixon at least had more tension.