Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Video review: "The Damned United"

In 10 days the Academy Awards will be announced. One film whose name won't be mentioned, but deserves to be, is "The Damned United."

This excellent drama about Brian Clough's disastrous 44-day tenure as manager of the powerhouse soccer (football) team Leeds United features a terrific, charismatic performance by Michael Sheen. Sheen plays Clough as a brilliant man whose pursuit of excellence was so single-minded, he let his ego and his arrogance overwhelm him.

But no Best Actor nomination for Sheen. Red card, Academy!

Another name that won't be called is Timothy Spall, who gives a great understated turn as Peter Taylor, the quiet genius who stood behind and to the right of Clough.

Even for someone like me who doesn't care for soccer, "The Damned United" offers an engaging portrait of the game circa 1974 -- the managers, the players, the owners and the media.

At first the film's focus is on Clough's obsession with eradicating the memory of his predecessor, Don Revie, who preached a win-at-all-costs creed that Clough deemed cheating.

But gradually the focus shifts to the sibling-like relationship between Clough and Taylor. It was a partnership of very different men that resulted in sports glory.

The expansive and impressive video extras are the same for Blu-ray and DVD versions.

A commentary track by Sheen, director Tom Hooper and producer Andy Harries is an insightful give-and-take, including the revelation that Leeds was hesitant to let them film at their stadium because they feared a hatchet job. Having finally secured permission, the trio joke that they then opened their movie with a montage of footage showing cheap shots by Leeds players.

Nine deleted scenes total more than 30 minutes of screen time, and reveal a deeper take on Clough's rift with his star player, Billy Bremner.

There's a fairly conventional 16-minute making-of documentary, and featurettes with Sheen talking about how he developed his character and delivering media bites dubbed "Cloughisms." Sheen offers the startling observation that Clough's mesmerizing power over his players was almost cult-like.

For football fans, two other features give about a half-hour of perspective on the real Clough and the game of the 1970s, including interviews with some of the real Leeds players depicted in the movie.

Movie: 4 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars

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