The Damned United Review

The Film

You may or may not remember the popular beat combo called Dodgy. They had one hit that I can still remember, Good Enough, but the reason that they stuck in my mind was the fact that I bore an uncanny resemblance to the drummer. Now, I am sure that you can imagine the kudos this likeness brought me in informed circles and in some small way I basked in all the reflected glory I could find. I can also scrabble a little more of this glory from the fact that my father knew Brian Clough. When I am trying to impress people with my intimacy with celebrities I find that this latter fact works far better than the former one.
The Damned United relies heavily on association with the real Brian Clough, and for the purposes of adaptation has rejigged the characterisation that David Peace's fictional novel gave the man in order to not alienate those who might choose to watch it. Peace's novel fictionalised the famous 44 days that the man spent at Leeds, and these events have further been amended, abridged, and rewritten to appease an image that the potential audience for this film have of this very famous man. Cloughie the obsessive footballing stalker of the novel becomes the arrogant but lovable bighead of this film who wants to shame a man, Don Revie, who once shamed him.

Obviously, this takes some of the shine off the real human being. Not only do we get a fictionalised perspective of him, but one compromised even more by concerns of box office. We get an impersonation of an impression of an impression of Brian Clough. This is not wholly objectionable though as Michael Sheen makes his man warm, sensitive, and ego driven, things that seem true to the public perception. Sheen also delivers the put-downs and the wit almost as well as the real deal, and the story becomes one not of failure but of friendship between two men, one famous and mouthy and the other restrained and happily anonymous.

The film therefore shifts the focus from Clough's egomania onto the love between Peter Taylor and the man whose shadow he lived in, and this allows for a much more enjoyable tale. Yet fiction it remains, and even if Sheen does imitate Clough well his performance, like those of the rest of a cast imitating real people, remains impersonation. The story here is also impersonation, and terribly simplistic with caricatures replacing real people and more effort placed on historical accuracy of haircuts than on emotional truth. Jim Broadbent hams it up as the old fashioned cigar chomping chairman, Timothy Spall gets a few funny lines and a permanent look of indigestion, and the football sequences are short and uninspiring.
The arc of the story and the meaning of these real life events is presented as Cloughie learning how much he needs Taylor after getting lost on a footballing crusade. The final updating of events from 1974 to present day which paints Revie as the eventual loser through comparison is a shameless attempt to have it both ways - to shame Cloughie the egotist whilst saying he was right all along. That though is the kind of film this is - calculating.

If you can accept how entirely fictional and manipulative this film is, then you will enjoy it. If you didn't love what Brian Clough's values were on the game of football, if you don't understand or love the game, then there is a fine chance that you will enjoy The Damned United. And, like me with my distant relationship to the real man, if you always wished that you'd known Brian Clough then you may enjoy this impersonation. However, I do hope that you seek out the interviews and evidence that is so available from Ol' Big 'Ead's big mouth to understand that the real thing was much more compelling - that is after all the point of youtube.
Damned United is a football film that doesn't seem to love football. Machismo overpowers the beautiful game and pissing contests replace the grace of John Robertson's left peg or Johnny Giles' passing. If the film celebrates anything it's the fraternal love between a fictional Clough and a fictional Taylor, and, to be honest, the great game of association football and the truth about one of its greatest advocates are merely incidental to the desire to capitalise on Brian Clough's name and legacy.

Technical specs

Sony give the film a 1080p presentation using the AVC/MPEG 4 codec in a 1.85:1 ratio. There are impressive levels of detail in shadow and in light, contrast is impeccable, and skintones seem intentionally hot. There's no haloing or obvious tinkering with the appearance of the film and this treatment seems quite in keeping with the movies desire to re-capture the seventies - part industrial, part gaudy. The filesize of the transfer is 26.8GB.
The sound options include HOH subs for the film and the commentary and an audio description track. For the film itself, there is the sole option of a TrueHD 5.1 track which maintains a healthy bitrate around 3000kbps. The surround channels are well used to capture the atmosphere of match days and the jaunty score keeps the fronts and rears busy, the sound mixing is clear and, remembering this is not an action movie, plenty of dimensionality can be experienced from this track.

Special features

Rather wonderfully, this is a disc which is in 1080P throughout with all of the extras encoded like the main feature. The commentary featuring Sheen, the director and the producer features lots of explanation and justification for the changes from David Peace's novel and these are often put down to the needs of the narrative. If, like me, you find that to be a little untrue and self serving when the true reason is that audiences wouldn't enjoy Clough the way Peace wrote him then you will not enjoy the commentary. Sheen is not a culprit here and his genuine passion for his craft and his character do shine through and he even points out where the writing completely changes events to suit its own needs such as in the Revie-Clough interview.

My jaundiced eye spots the same flaw with the deleted scenes as nearly all of them are far less flattering of Clough. The sequence when he is rude to his secretary is accompanied by Hooper's commentary admitting that this was removed from the film because of how unsympathetic it made his lead character. There's over 30 minutes worth of these excised and extended scenes and they don't really add much to the film.

There is a featurette looking at the changing culture of football during the seventies which is really some more talking heads concentrating on Revie and Clough and their differences. I may need to check my Rothmans yearbooks but wasn't there a more successful team than Forest or Leeds during that decade? Perfect Pitch is a short making of piece which boils down the film to being about Clough being his own worst enemy and includes contributions from Hooper, the writer, Simon Clifford(football choreographer) and Sheen and Spall.

The remaining extras are all about Clough with plenty of Sheen explaining how he got into character and attempting to re-create some of his famous interviews. Sheen explains that Clough believed that his eyes were a particular motivational weapon and that his performance emphasised this mesmerism. Cast and crew, along with ex players like Eddie Gray and John McGovern and the real Austin Mitchell remember Clough as nostalgia is stirred up yet again.

Several trailers for other Sony product are included in HD.


Brian Clough, for me and many others, was a working class hero who loved the game of football and made it better. It seems peculiarly British that his cinematic legacy will be that of the great failure of his life, but I hope that someone else brings to our screens an appreciation of this man, and his great collaborator Peter Taylor, that loves football like he did. Damned United is a competent film with good actors and fine cinematography, it is though an impersonation, a fabrication, and a calculated manipulation of the great man.

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Category Blu-Ray Review

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