The Queen and Frost/Nixon screenwriter Peter Morgan’s interest in prominent media figures intent on proving themselves worthy of their public spotlight positions continues with The Damned United, the true story of the contentious 44-day 1974 tenure of Brian Clough (Morgan go-to-guy Michael Sheen) as manager of football titan Leeds United. Based on David Peace’s celebrated nonfiction book, Tom Hooper’s film is a fractured portrait of one man’s efforts—driven by jealousy, an inferiority complex, and an uncontrollable ego—to best the accomplishments of Don Revie (Colm Meaney), the illustrious former Leeds manager who functions for Clough as a surrogate paternal figure who showed him insufficient respect. Morgan’s script flashes back and forth from Clough’s disastrous two-month Leeds stint, marked by players he had previously slandered as dirty balking at his stewardship, to the preceding five years, in which he and right-hand-man Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) guided unheralded Derby County to the first division while Clough sparred with the club’s board chairman (Jim Broadbent). It’s a parallel-tracks structure that smoothly reveals cause-effect relationships even as it sometimes feels designed to gussy up the narrative’s straightforward rise-and-fall arc.
If the story lays out its psychological and interpersonal dynamics with a tidiness that makes them feel a tad glib, bookending scenes of Clough being interviewed on TV reflect Morgan’s continued, respectful conception of the small screen as a crucible for starkly facing one’s ambitions, limitations, and potential. Aside from repeatedly framing Clough in close-up with burdensome structures and figures (Derby row houses, spiteful Revie-supporting fans) looming above his head, director Hooper recreates his steel blue and gray ‘70s milieus with unfussy fidelity, and Sheen’s shit-eating grins and cocky bluster do much to energize the clear-cut material. Regardless of his later triumphs, Clough and his tale feel minor in comparison to Morgan and Sheen’s prior subjects (Tony Blair, David Frost), an impression that contributes to the film’s slightness. Still, in its empathetic (if mildly corny) depiction of Clough and Taylor’s friendship as a loving marriage strained by one partner’s naked careerism and twisted issues of self-worth, it nonetheless also winds up—to its betterment—as the screenwriter’s reasonably adept maiden foray into Judd Apatow “bromance” territory.