The Damned United: Universal Truth

Some films are damned by their subject matter. People think it’s too niche, not for them. A few years ago in London’s Leicester Square, I passed a man standing outside one of the many cinemas there, looking at the film times and talking on his mobile to the person who going to join him. They were trying to decide what they would see.

There were a couple of so-so blockbusters around, and showing in a few minutes was the magnificent documentary Touching The Void. Admittedly it’s a hard sell. It’s a mountaineering story of people assumed dead, of mistakes and severe injury. But its also utterly thrilling and inspiring; one of those universal human stories that will grip and connect with anyone who sees it. I’m no climber, I have no real love for it, but I’d recommend that film to anyone.

Back to the man on the phone. Here’s what I remember hearing him say:

‘You want to see Touching The Void? What’s it about……[silence]. Your idea of a good night out is a story about a cold climb going wrong? A documentary? Get out of town! Let’s just go for a beer”

Their loss. There will be similar reactions to the prospect of The Damned United. It’s a story about football, and while of course this has a wider appeal than does climbing, it’s about football in England in the 1970s. In the muddy, grimy north of England, where top level sport was considerably less glamorous than it was now. Although it’s central character (the great manager Brian Clough) was by any standards a charismatic and colourful man, this is film based on a book by the author David Peace. He’s a masterful writer, but in his hands just about every story and character is dark and disturbing.

So yes, this film is a tough sell. If you were a marketing person you would of course sell it by saying that it’s not really about football – you’d want to say that it’s about love or friendship or something like that. The causal viewer, however, with no interest in the subject matter, would roll their eyes and go to find a comedy.

If you do that, you miss out. Because this is a universal story, and it is about friendship and ambition; football’s just the context, and really there’s precious little of it on screen (which is good, as it’s a very difficult sport to film well). It’s about the hopes, fears and doubts that drive us and what happens when we let them get out of control. It’s about friendship as a hard but worthwhile journey. Anyone who’s ever said something they regret to someone they value; anyone who has ever tried to prove themselves bigger than someone who has slighted them, and fallen flat doing so; anyone who has been consumed by a job or a vision or an idea; anyone, in short, who has lived will find something of value, challenge and comfort here.

What’s more, this film has changed the tone of the book – it’s funny, warm, engaging and a little exciting. It should go without saying that Michael Sheen is brilliant in it, but we need to keep saying it until he gets the awards he so richly deserves. There other fine performances too – I particularly liked the affected distance of Colm Meaney as Clough’s nemesis.

Really this a story about what happens when we give into Macbeth’s vaulting ambition, when let ourselves be broken by the desire to dominate and gain revenge. This film isn’t perfect, but then neither are the people it tells us about. Which makes it all the more accessible for the rest of us.

If you’re a person with hopes and fears and ambitions, then this is for you. Don’t miss the wood for the trees.