THE DAMNED UNITED — ★★★1/2 — Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent; rated R (profanity); Broadway Centre
Anyone doubting Michael Sheen's peerless ability to impersonate after "Frost/Nixon" or "The Queen" has further proof of his talents in "The Damned United."
No, most Americans don't know the real Brian Clough, the Captain Ahab of English soccer whom Sheen plays in the film. But there's a scene in when his character mocks the owner of a club that he's managing, an owner played by the Oscar winner Jim Broadbent. Sheen-as-Clough does Broadbent-as-chairman so perfectly it must have made the real Broadbent blush.
"The Damned United" is a most entertaining study in obsession wrapped in a traditional sports movie. Clough was a phenomenon in British sports of the 1970s, a Billy Martin of soccer — building winners and ruffling feathers wherever he went.
But as this movie, scripted by Sheen's pal Peter Morgan ("Frost/Nixon," "The Queen") suggests, it wasn't winning that drove him. It was that white whale of his psyche — Don Revie, the aloof, arrogant coach of perennial powerhouse Leeds United.
The film takes us from the first affront — a hand not shaken — through an infamous TV "debate" between the two (Colm Meaney plays Revie) in which Clough hissed that he'd hated the guy for years over a perceived insult.
Timothy Spall ably plays the sober-minded Peter Taylor, the savvy assistant coach who climbs the heights with Clough as they take seedy, second-division losers Derby County to the top of English soccer. Broadbent is properly bluff and befuddled.
But it is Sheen, with just enough ball skills to suggest an ex-player turned coach, who carries the film — locker room speeches, instructing on the pitch, all with a single-minded and self-destructive ambition that sports fans and Shakespeare fans recognize. Morgan (Tom Hooper directed), working from a David Peace novel about this feud, frames the tale in 1974, when Clough had just taken over his hated rivals' team, and flashbacks show us his years of outrage at the way Leeds played the game.
"Football is a bea-u-tiful game," Sheen purrs, insulting his new team, with just a hint of David Frost slipping into Clough's vowels. "It needs to be played bea-u-tifully."
It's an intense, burning performance in a very conventional film, one buttressed by sympathetic support all around. Meaney stands out by giving his Revie a sort of remote callousness, a villain seen from afar. His Revie doesn't have a clue Clough hates him.
And Sheen, playing a sports figure so mouthy he got the attention of Muhammad Ali (seen in news footage), adds another great performance to a polished resume. The cocky Clough may be the role that earns him an Oscar nomination.
"The Damned United" is rated R for language. Running time: 97 minutes.