All-star movie faces uphill struggle -- because it's about soccerby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A new movie called "The Damned United," opening in the Twin Cities this weekend, has a lot going for it. It has an all-star cast, an Oscar nominated-screenwriter and an Emmy Award-winning director. It's the story of a British cultural icon.
However, the film faces a challenge at the U.S. box office because - it's about soccer.
"The Damned United" is about Brian Clough, a professional soccer manager in England who was so good, and so mouthy, he even caught the attention of Muhammad Ali.
"Some fella in London England named Brian Clough, I hear that this fellow talks too much," Ali said. "They say he's another Muhammad Ali. Now Clough, I've had enough. Stop it!"
In the film, as Clough and friends watch Ali on TV one asks: "Are you going to stop it?"
"No," Clough replies with a laugh, "I'm going to fight him."
From the late 1960s on, Brian Clough was a central figure in British soccer. He had a talent for taking underperforming players and forming world-beating teams. Michael Sheen, who plays him in "The Damned United," said people liked him for the way he played the underdog.
"But he was also the man who did the kind of things we all wish we could do," Sheen said. "You know he was outrageous, he was outspoken [and] he was controversial. He was witty and funny and unpredictable and he had huge, it seemed on the surface, huge amounts of self confidence."
"The Damned United" is based on a controversial novelization of Clough's life. It looks at one of his darker periods in the 1970s when he was hired to replace his arch-rival, Don Revie, as manager of Leeds United. Leeds was the country's top team, but in the film Clough tells his new players he knows they've won through dirty play.
"Well, I might as well tell you now," Clough said. "You lot may all be internationals, and have won all the domestic honors there are to win under Don Revie. But as far as I'm concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest flipping dustbin you can find, because you have never won any of them fairly. You've won them by blooming cheating."
The team didn't take well to the new boss, and the film follows the story of how Clough was humiliated and fired a month and a half later.
Sheen, who's known for his uncanny ability to capture the essence of famous people such as Tony Blair and David Frost, spent months studying films of Clough, and reading everything he could about the man nicknamed "Old Big Head."
Director Tom Hooper said Sheen's ability to transform himself was remarkable.
"There were many times during the shoot after a couple of days when I lapsed into thinking I was directing Brian Clough, with all the challenges that entails," he said.
Hooper was nominated for an Emmy for his John Adams miniseries and won one for his "Elizabeth I" programs. "The Damned United" also features other big-name British actors including Jim Broadbent, Colm Meany and Timothy Spall.
But Hooper and Sheen acknowledge, it's going to be tough selling a movie involving soccer in the U.S.
"The Damned United" has received rave reviews from many major U.S. papers, but that may not be enough to make the film hot at the box office, according to Peter Schilling Jr.
Schilling is both a film critic and a sports writer. He said sports movies always have trouble. He points to the critically-acclaimed baseball movie "Sugar" which came out last year.
"Baseball fans I knew didn't want to see it because it was an art house film, and art house fans didn't want to see it because it was a baseball movie," he said. "I imagine with 'The Damned United' it's going to be even more of an uphill battle because soccer doesn't have much of foothold here."
Perhaps as a result, the picture is receiving a limited release, but it is playing in the Twin Cities.
Brian Clough died five years ago at age 69. Michael Sheen admits he's asked himself what Clough might have said about the film. He sinks into Clough's distinctive accent as he speaks.
"He would probably think, 'If a trilogy was good enough for Lord of the Rings, why have I only got one film about me?'"
It's a statement anyone who saw ever Brian Clough in action would recognize as apt.
- Morning Edition, 10/23/2009, 6:45 a.m.