Eternal Damnation – The Damned United

A strong title for a film that focuses on the 44 days that Brian Clough spent at Leeds United way back when. It proved to be one of the most interesting periods of Clough’s life, but in making a film about that, the film couldn’t help but be a biography of sorts for the great man himself. Why? Because the story of Clough as a manager, and as a football man is too extensive, too interesting and too dramatic, at the best of times, to not be a film in its own right. Which other manager would win two European cups back to back…with a provincial club? We’re not talking about the United of Manchester here, nor are we referring to the Pool of Liver. Leeds United was also in the running back then, although now they (un)fortunately grace the lower divisions of English football. Having said that, their current team is looking very much a useful outfit. I would not be surprised if they were to be promoted sooner rather than later.

Back then, though, their problem has little to do with promotion, but more to do with challenging for titles. Their problem is, their manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), is leaving them for the England managerial post in 1974. He recommended that his captain, Johnny Giles (Peter Macdonald), be made his successor, but in a moment that many parties would regret, the outspoken, critical, but wildly successful and talented Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) from Derby County was appointed in his stead. Unfortunately, Clough did not come without his baggage, for he has long been an outspoken critic of Leeds United and their style of play. “Well, I might as well tell you now,” he starts off his first training session. “You lot may all be internationals and have won all the domestic honours there are to win under Don Revie. But as far as I’m concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest fucking dustbin you can find, because you’ve never won any of them fairly. You’ve done it all by bloody cheating.” Not exactly the best of ways to impress your  new charges, especially if the overlooked Giles is still listed in the squad.

Pettigrew scouted for Voldemort FC back in the day.

Why the enmity, though? Why such hatred for a man recognised as successful as Revie? Could jealousy have been a part of it? It was noted specifically as such in the film, though that particular elephant was white enough to be in the room. Instead, the film took the angle planting the seed between the two men pretty early on. Flitting back and forth between the present and the past, Revie apparently did not pay enough respect to Clough when he took his Leeds team to Derby for an FA Cup match. “He didn’t even say goodbye,” Clough noted sadly, but he did not let that get him down. Rather, he ordered his partner in crime, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) to go out and get him the players he needed to get on top. That, perhaps, was a part of the problem, because Taylor did not follow Clough to Leeds. There, he was alone, and fed to the wolves, he was even tackled by his own players, the players he was supposed to manage. How then, will he deal with this? How will he ever get out of the shadow of Don Revie, a shadow that, it could be argued, he put himself under? How, then, to portray a flawed genius that is Brian Clough?

That is a loaded question in many ways. It’s worth noting that apparently his own family wasn’t happy about this particular production going ahead. I suppose I could see their point of view, because, like I said earlier at the start of this review, Clough himself is a very complex character, one whose passion would (apparently) cause him to ditch dinner with his family just for the chance to sign football players. That is the view that the wider world would have of the man. I say the wider world, because beyond the football fanatics who have an interest in English football at the time, I very much doubt whether the name Clough means anything to them other than as the manager of Derby County…who’s actually managed by Nigel, the son of Brian. I remember reading about the news when he was appointed. A lot of fanfare there was, the son coming back to continue the job of the father. I didn’t realise he had been a manager since the late 90s, but there you go.

Another tonking did not help.

I didn’t realise that Michael Sheen would pop up here as Brian Clough as well, truth be told. In all honest, the bugger’s been a bit greedy, hasn’t he? Off the top of my head, I cannot recall seeing another actor who have appeared in so many movies in a short period of time. From ‘The Queen’ onwards, he seemed to have been involved in at least two films a year. And what a wide range of roles they are as well! From the vampire flicks of ‘Underworld’ to real-life adaptations as Tony Blair (twice) and David Frost, he also made appearances in the ‘Twilight’ movies; I watched ‘Unthinkable’ on the recommendation of a friend recently, and the main antagonist tugged at me throughout the whole film, because he was so familiar and yet so unrecognisable at the same time. My relief was only released at the end, when I noted his name in the credits. Of course, he popped up in ‘TRON: Legacy’ as well. A quick look at his IMDB page reveals six projects in post-production for the calendar year of 2011. Is he a madman? What is he on? Quantity over quality? We can’t really complain either, because in this film, and in many of the others, he captured the spirit of his characters so well. It certainly does fit with my impression of Brian Clough, but what it also does is to portray another side of him. A cantankerous, argumentative man, born with iron will in his veins. He does not back down, he sticks to his guns. In some cases, to grave consequences.

Prescient, as well. Clough noted that money is the way of the future for football in the game, when he (not for the first time); he even mentioned prawn sandwiches in an interview after a defeat to Juventus. Of course, that’s easy to see with hindsight, but it’s a nice touch all the same. I’ll tell you what else is a nice touch: the use of text. Text and sound is a big part of how the story is told in certain parts of the story, helping to move things along in a very economical but effective way. It’s nice to be reminded that there are things beyond the obvious that can be utilised in telling a story. It helps that there is a great cast backing him up, with Colm Meany seeming to fit into the role like a hand in glove. He was the best kind of villain, in many ways, in the sense that he probably didn’t even realise he was the antagonist. Of course, we could also make the argument that Clough himself was his own biggest enemy, as Taylor so eloquently put it. Fantastic stuff.

Early attempts at 'Avatar' were crap.

On that note, I would like to finally note the mise en scene. In my opinion, how it has been utilised is simply superb. There is always plenty of space within many of the frames that Clough appears in. The angle is skewed to one side, or the camera is of a lower position, giving a big more headspace at the top of the frame. I feel that there is an attempt here to infuse the environment into the story. Clough has always seen himself as the main force around which the universe revolves; perhaps in a not-so-subtle way, Tom Hooper is trying to say that he is not quite as big or as important as the environment he’s in. There is the saying that no man is bigger than the club, after all.

Perhaps that’s why the family is not happy with this film. The portrayal that will stay with the general public is one of an obnoxious man who remains disconnected from the world outside of football, because he is consumed by the fire within him to succeed and beat Don Revie, his arch rival, at any cost. The image is that of a man who thinks only of himself. I, however, see a man who is flawed as many geniuses are, because ultimately I believe I saw the portrayal of a human being as only and exactly that: a human being. “Who do you think you are?” the Leeds directors thundered angrily at Clough’s outrageous demands, made as he was about to leave the room.

He turned on his heels, and looked at them steely. “Brian Clough,” he started. Gone are the flash and swagger. “Brian Howard Clough.”

Fikri likes watching movies that infuses old footage with the new. There’s something about nostalgia that does it for him…

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