"The Damned United" is a sports drama based on reality, and it shows. The central figure - we can't call him a hero - is the late English soccer team manager Brian Clough, who ranks with Jake LaMotta and Ty Cobb as one of the least lovable pro sports stars.
Snide of speech, vile of temper, altogether self-centered, he's also magnetically confident and endlessly quotable, as Peter Morgan's screenplay demonstrates. Anybody who declares, "I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the Top One," makes a writer's job much easier.
Michael Sheen - Tony Blair in "The Queen" and David Frost in "Frost/Nixon," both scripted by Morgan - is chilling as Clough. We meet him in 1974 as he inherits leadership of league champion Leeds United. He immediately tells the Leeds players, "As far as I'm concerned, you can throw all those medals you've won in the bin because you won them all by cheating." No surprise that the team turned against him.
A consummate egotist, Clough drove away every colleague except his longtime scout Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), a man loyal to the point of co-dependency. The story of their strained friendship is the background to the soccer dramatics on the field.
Director Tom Hooper's approach is no-frills simplicity. He shows the shabby, small-scale world of pro sports before it became a multibillion-dollar business. Jim Broadbent is solid as the team's blustery chairman, whose verbal duels with the edgy, ambitious Clough are as exciting as the run-up to a penalty kick.
"The Damned United"
STARRING: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent
RATED: R for language
RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Opening Wednesday for a limited run at the Nickelodeon Theatre.