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The Damned United

Entertaining bio-pic of 1970s U.K. football manager

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Think of this movie as Britain's revenge. We send them film after film celebrating the real-life exploits of long-ago coaches and players from such mysterious-to-them sports as baseball, basketball and college football. Now, they've returned the favor -- sending us this great story about a beloved but dusty sports personality, embroiled in the regional politics of a mysterious-to-most-Americans sport, a.k.a. the other football.

Fortunately, unlike most of our homegrown sports flicks, this isn't some inspirational claptrap. Tom Hooper's somewhat witty, somewhat gritty bio-pic is less about the game on the pitch than about one of its bench personalities, the mouthy, ambitious manager Brian Clough (Michael Sheen). The film covers Clough's (in)famous 1974 tenure as the manager of Britain's top team, Leeds United, a position he held for a mere 44 days before being sacked. 

The film is two parts character study, one part nostalgia for grubbier, less flashy days of football, and one part front-office politics. The story opens with Clough and his right-hand man Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) arriving at Leeds United, in the wake of its very successful manager, Don Revie (Colm Meany). As we learn in flashbacks, Clough, then the manager of struggling Derby, has little love for Leeds' Revie, a man whose triumphs he hopes to best. Arrogance and ego drive Clough, but they'll prove his undoing as well. (Likewise his on-camera chattiness in those days of burgeoning sports-talk TV.)

Needless to say, those who know little about British football will be baffled by tossed-off talk of divisions, penalties, other clubs and players, as well as by the two lightly sketched team transformations we see. Cutting between the 1960s past (the ascent of Derby) and the 1974 present (the collapse of Leeds) makes sorting out such details even trickier.  But for fans -- or those willing to let some of the finer plot points slide -- Hooper delivers a fast-paced, entertaining story of a colorful character, carried on the shoulders of his most valuable player: Sheen. Starts Fri., Nov. 27. Regent Square

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