Sports movies have been following such a tried-and-true formula for so long that when one comes around that actually makes a sincere effort to be different, we notice. Britain’s “The Damned United,” which follows the late-’60s/mid-’70s rivalry between soccer coaches Brian Clough and Don Revie, is just such a sports movie. Like its protagonist Clough, “United” exudes flashiness and showmanship, because the people who made this movie know it’s one of the best of its genre in a long time.

“The Damned United”

At the Michigan
Sony Pictures Classics

It’s okay if you haven’t heard of Clough and Revie. Chances are, most Americans haven’t. But they’re legends in England, and their history together is one that will be familiar to fans of American sports. Driven by the desire to destroy what he sees as a team of “no-good cheaters,” Clough builds up the prominence of his Derby County squad until they’re on an equal playing field with and eventually beat Revie’s perpetual league champions Leeds United. But when Clough starts shooting his mouth off too much, he loses his coaching job, and, through a twist of circumstance, is offered Leeds after Revie steps down. Taking the reigns of his former rivals, Clough intends to best every accomplishment Revie had with the team, but instead runs them into the ground with their worst start in 20 years.

Maybe there’s a bit of RichRod in Brian Clough? Between all the misunderstandings (Clough’s hatred of Revie begins when Revie doesn’t shake his hand at the first match-up of their opposing teams), shady dealings (Clough goes behind the back of the team owner to sign big-time players) and the fact that a personal feud starts taking priority over the traditions and fanbases of their respective teams, the comparison certain doesn’t seem far from the truth. But let’s try not to point fingers here.

The film is carried by Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon”) as Clough, and Sheen once again demonstrates that he’s one of the most talented and underrated actors working today. It’s not so much that Sheen reveals depth and complexity to Clough’s character. On the contrary, the genius of his performance is that he makes Clough so aggressively driven, so single-minded in his quest to overthrow Revie (Colm Meaney, “Law Abiding Citizen”), that our only two options are to root for him or slap him across the face.

As the movie jumps back and forth in time between Clough’s rise to prominence at Derby County and his brief but painful tenure at Leeds, we watch his demeanor progress from cheeky to cocky to all-out despicable. When Sheen draws out his line deliveries to the breaking point of self-awareness, he’d be so easy to hate if he weren’t so much damn fun to watch.

Providing the perfect counterbalance to Clough is his loyal assistant manager, played with the cozy warmth of an afternoon tea by Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew from the “Harry Potter” movies). In a film almost entirely sans women, the relationship between these two men is the closest thing to an emotional center.

Director Tom Hooper (HBO’s “John Adams”) and screenwriter Peter Morgan treat the events of “The Damned United” with the same gravity as the stories of Queen Elizabeth and Richard Nixon, which Morgan previously scripted as “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon” (both also starring Sheen). You need that kind of seriousness and dedication on the part of the filmmakers in order to tell this tale properly; the audience needs to believe, as the two managers do, that sports is a matter of life and death. Brian Clough has too much ambition and likes to bite off more than he can chew. But when he boisterously declares he wants to take every accomplishment Revie’s ever had and beat it, we’re united with him, RichRod comparisons be damned.

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