Though it may not play as well on this side of the Atlantic, The Damned United puts a mighty kick into British "football" through Michael Sheen's adroit turn as the fiery and self-destructive manager Brian Clough.
After Frost/Nixon and The Queen, a sharp Sheen again acts from Peter Morgan's sensible, peppery script based on the 2006 book to make one drawn to such an edgy, cocky soccer guru who inherits the winning franchise, Leeds United in 1974.
Tom Hooper (who did so well with "John Adams" on the small-screen) brings a gritty stylishness to Clough's tumultuous 44-day reign as the Leeds coach, as evidenced by his work with his crew, especially on the design and lensing fronts.
As a smart inversion on the chronology explains the history during the progression of the present day, Don Revie (Colm Meaney) has left the Leeds team to lead the national team of England. Revie has been Clough's chief rival ever since the lightly-pompadoured intense fellow brought his County team up into the first division with partner and expert strategist Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall).
The split between Brian and Peter, who is under obligation from Brighton, leaves the Leeds United manager in a messy predicament with the finest veteran players in the sport, as well as fans and management.
Hooper and Morgan hone into the perils of one's hype and power and how it corrupts with wise downplaying of the on-field activity and its potentially diverting hoopla. The crafty coldness of a finally self-effacing Clough is out there with rich clarity as Sheen delivers a full-bodied performance with as much spunk and fervor as one could imagine. And, it's crucial that the filmmakers never let go of the importance of Brian and Peter to one another as The Damned United reaches a pitch-perfect high point in Brighton.
Spall is really on top of his game to make Sheen look so good as the whole timeline over a generation ago has nearly an equality of eerie and cheeky bluster to it as the banter and rapport between Taylor and Clough is so engaging. A key sequence involves the spry, very sufficient support of Meaney in an impromptu media event with Clough and Reverie in a heated exchange. Jim Broadbent also turns up welcomely as the jaded owner back in Derby.
This well-mounted biopic of sorts consistently entertains and rarely strains as an astute examination of friendship and alienation isn't without betrayal and outbursts. Sheen's searingly complex, award-worthy portrait in something this lively, raw and wrenching lifts it beyond above average sports fare.