Starring: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Jim Broadbent
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Rated: 15 (uncut)
Running time: 97 mins
With a ‘93% Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Damned United was almost universally praised critics upon release in 2009, but panned by most of the characters it portrays.
Having read David Peace’s novel of the same name (on which the film is based), this writer enjoyed the movie, but understands and agrees with some complaints that it plays liberties with the truth…
What’s the film about?
The Damned United chronicles Brian Clough’s 44 days in charge of Leeds United in 1974. The backstory portrays his rise as co-manager of Derby County and his rivalry with Leeds’ legendary boss, Don Revie (Colm Meaney).
What I don’t like about the film
Liberties with the truth
Much of the appeal of the film lies in the fact that its main character is a real person – the highly-successful and colourful Brian Clough.
After Clough achieved promotion to the second flight and won the league within just two seasons, he was the natural choice to take over from Revie at Leeds, after the latter took on the England job in 1974. The story of Clough’s ensuing 44 days at Leeds is a compelling one and much of the interest in the film stems from the truth in the story.
The problem with the film is that it ignores facts and adds elements for its own ends. By using a real person as its main protagonist, The Damed United capitalises on the fame of the real man, while offering no genuine insight into Clough’s thoughts or actions behind the scenes– and that is where the danger lies when fact meets fiction.
Several of the characters’ real-life counterparts, including Leeds’ midfielders Johnny Giles and Peter Lorimer, complained that the film (and novel) portrays events and dialogue didn’t actually occur.
Former Derby player Dave MacKay even sued the film’s production company for suggesting he broke a 1973 players’ revolt to take the latter’s place as manager at Derby. In fact, MacKay left Derby in 1971 to become manager of Swindon Town.
It’s small details like this which distort the truth unnecessarily, while also spreading potentially harmful lies about real people.
What I liked about The Damned United
Performances and story
The Damned United is a great film. Michael Sheen is uncanny as Clough and has the accent and mannerisms down pat. He really inhabits the character.
Meanwhile, Clough’s relationship with co-manager and friend Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) is full of warmth; their story (both real and fictional) is one of success and triumph over adversity. While there are other great football films, the true story which underpins The Damned United arguably makes it one of the best about the sport.
Less offensive to Clough than the novel
While the novel is narrated by Clough’s inner voice and portrays him as a vengeful and bitter alcoholic, the film softens these nastier edges. This is a good thing, because when writing the novel, there’s no way Peace could’ve known what Clough was thinking. While Clough’s family still hated the film, the on-screen character is much more likeable than the one in the novel.