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Movie Review: Tom Hooper's The Damned United (2009)

The film Damned United (2009) did not make a big stir in the United States. That's because the events it covers were not big events in American culture. Rather, these events were important to our Brit neighbors. They love their football (soccer to us) like we love basketball and American football.
The movie is about Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), a coach that took his original team, Derby United, from the bottom of the 2nd division to the top of the 1st division. He took Derby United from a team with no game to a team with game to spare. In fact, after a time, his team beat THE team to beat, Leeds United. 

But back up, because we don't know how important that is until we know that before Clough raised his team from the ashes, Clough idolized Leeds United and their coach, Don Revie, until Revie snubs him by not shaking his hand at a game on the home turf of Derby. We see Clough, ecstatic that Revie is coming. He carefully scrubs every inch of the away team's showers, places an orange on top of each towel as a gesture. He carefully places two wine glasses and a bottle of wine on his desk, envisioning the perfect toast between two coaches. And then, to have Revie walk right past him without even a howdy do was the ultimate diss, which Clough carried around with him like a cross he had to bear.

After Revie retires, Clough is offered the position of Leeds United coach. Just think--he could coach his arch rival team and mentally castrate the players he used to love to curse on the field. Well he takes the job and is employed for only 44 days. Because the situation spirals completely out of control. And the story and Clough's legend is unfurled in a lovely lazy way.

This is a fascinating movie that you will enjoy despite yourself. This is coming from a gal who has zero interest in sports. But the movie isn't about sports. It's about Clough and his brilliance, as well as his narcissism and his pride. Clough who yells at the board of directors--Clough who gives his assistant coach a kiss on the check. He must have been beautiful and belligerent. Michael Sheen has just the right combination of obsessive thinking and boyish enthusiasm to pull off this role.
The story unfolds in a series of alternating flashbacks and flash forwards. There is enough directional text (date are mentioned before each scene) to keep you up to date on where the story is going.
Don't expect to see your typical sports movie with the Bad News Bears who go from a ragtag bunch of losers to winning it all at the end. The teams are insignificant. This is Clough's story and his alone. For when he coached, he didn't see his team for who they were. He saw them for what he wanted them to be and what they did for him. He could have been coaching just about anyone, and he would have done exactly the same thing.

For me, what separates a great movie from a good movie is that there is something you can learn from it all. Something inspirational at the end. Damned United had that. For no matter how bad things got for Clough, they did eventually turn around. That is not the subject of this movie, although we do get to read about it at the end. At a point in this movie, you will decide that Clough failed. If the events in this movie are correct, then what I admire about Clough is that he did not let his failure become his defining moment. Oh, don't get me wrong. He screwed up, and he screwed up big time. He is not a likable protagonist. But when he failed, he recognized defeat, shrugged his shoulders, and found a way back up again.

Compare him to T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia). Lawrence was another narcissist, only he refused to recognize that he was human. When he "failed" to create a united Arabian government, he gave up and went home crushed in his spirit. How might things have been different for him if he had recognized his mistakes, cut his losses, and tried a different strategy.
In the end, Clough did do great things, but it was not until he developed some humility that he was able to do them. This is a movie worth seeing.