You don’t have to be a soccer expert, or even know all that much about the sport, to get sucked into the competing personalities and personal dramas of “The Damned United.”
Sure, it probably helps in terms of appreciating some of the details and nuances, especially if you’re a fan of the British football depicted here.
But director Tom Hooper doesn’t actually include very much action on the field: “The Damned United” is more about the larger-than-life figures behind the scenes, mainly Brian Clough, the real-life manager of Leeds United for a brief and tumultuous period in 1974.
As he did with his brilliant and underappreciated supporting work as Tony Blair in “The Queen” and David Frost “Frost/Nixon,” Michael Sheen brings this cocky coach vividly to life.
Based on David Peace’s 2006 novel, “The Damned United” jumps back and forth between Clough’s hiring as the new Leeds coach, following the departure of beloved manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) for the English national team, and the unlikely rise Clough previously enjoyed with perennial cellar-dwellers, which earned him this esteemed gig.
Once the brash, young Clough takes over the Leeds job, he insists on changing the players and their routines, seemingly to put his own arbitrary stamp on them and break them of their loyalty to Revie, whom he’d long considered a rival.
Naturally, these skilled and successful men balk. Not only are they disobedient, they’re disdainful, leading to a disastrous season in which Clough manages to hold onto his job for a mere 44 days.
Hooper, who previously directed the multiple Emmy-winning miniseries “John Adams,” takes a gritty approach both on and off the field which gives the film a sense of immediacy; the emotions seem unadorned and visceral.
But by causing you to care about a man you instinctively want to hate, Sheen is the movie’s MVP.