The year is 1974 and the English national football team have just failed to qualify for the World Cup, which means a new manager has been sought. That man is Don Revie (Colm Meaney), former manager of the hugely successful Leeds United, so that team now needs a new manager itself, and a surprising choice is settled upon: Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), the former manager of Derby County, a club he built up from the bottom of the Second Divsion to the top of the First. But Clough has been a great rival of Revie's, and his preoccupation with beating Leeds is seen by many to colour his perceptions of the team he is taking over - especially without right hand man Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall)...
Yes, it's true, there was a film about football made in the early twenty-first century that was not about hooliganism, and The Damned United went on to be regarded as one of the best movies on its subject ever made, not that it had many rivals, with Mike Bassett England Manager probably the best of those before it as far as British efforts went, and that was a comedy. This was more sober stuff, based on the novel by David Peace which took a fictional look at the disastrous forty-four days Brian Clough spent at Leeds, and built up a psychological drama around it, a lead that was taken by screenwriter Peter Morgan here, following on from his previous fact-based scripts that had been such successes.
Granted, this was more limited in international appeal than The Queen, for example, had been, but nevertheless director Tom Hooper, himself from television, took a genuinely cinematic approach to what could have been strictly small scale and parochial. This was helped enormously by Michael Sheen, himself adding to his portrayals of real people that had won him such acclaim, and finding a depth of emotion at the heart of a character to prove him both fit subject for the biopic treatment, while retaining the actual man's charisma and appeal. Watching this, you could see why football fans found it impossible not to have an opinion on Brian Clough, and this effort wrung all dramatic potential out of him for the good of their story.
Taking this psychological style to what might not have been so rigorously analysed in that way at the time meant that some fans complained about the plot playing fast and loose with the truth. Morgan stuck fairly close to the general idea of the facts, but a few were irked by just how much was changed in the service of tension and showbiz gestures as far as what we have come to expect these cinematic life stories could present. This put the viewer in the odd position of accepting that not everything they saw was true, but recognising that the spirit of the era, of the personalities involved, was nevertheless authentic. After about ten minutes of this, you would most likely be swept up in its recreation of the British mid-seventies.
When Clough took up the job at Leeds, he let the team know what he thought of their dirty tactics and the underhand manner in which he saw them winning time and again, according to this anyway. Here these players are shown to be very much the villains of the piece, with their loyalty to Revie a major stumbling block to Clough getting them on his side, but there's another one, and that's the absence of Taylor. The relationship between those two men is depicted in oddly sentimental, tender terms, and the way in which they "break up" is akin to a divorce - the women in the story barely get a conversation in the whole film. We are guided to be backing Clough's point of view throughout, so see him as victimised by all at Leeds, from the fans to the players to the board of directors, that is until Clough meets Revie at a television interview at the end, and Revie points out how wrong his supposed rival has got it. Whether you're sympathetic to Clough or otherwise by that stage, you can't deny that his fictional self has been interesting company. Music by Robert Lane.