Based on David Peace's novel, which is itself [loosely] based on the true story of Brian Clough's quite doomed 44-day stint as manager in 1974 of the then reigning champions of English football Leeds United, Damned United is both a sport film and a character study and succeeds pretty damned well at both.
Different audiences will have varying levels of appreciation for the film; clearly, football/soccer fans will have higher regard for it though it is not simply a film about sport but a film about male relationships, both friend and professional, and about the damage rendered by the male ego. It is a most lovingly portrayed period piece, capturing the 60s and 70s United Kingdom with bang on accuracy.
Damned United screenwriter Peter Morgan (the gifted Oscar winner behind The Queen and Frost/Nixon) also does a smart job of reducing the book's back and forth, almost subconscious (look up other ways of saying this) meandering style into a more cohesive shorthand -- while still maintaining the novel's chronological jumps. These flashes backward and forward make the narrative more interesting than it might have been had it stayed on a steady line through Clough's difficult, short period as Leeds manager.
Tom Hooper, who made history of an entirely different sort come alive in HBO's John Adams and Longford, does well with a more recent bit of history, capturing well the 60s and 70s culture, not just the look but the feel and mood of England at the time -- with a very able assist from cinematographer Ben Smithard (Cranford).
But what really keeps it together is the effortlessly charming Michael Sheen's performance as Clough. Sheen's continues on from his David Frost, once again displaying his talent for playing arrogance with enough charm and likability to make even a heel root-able. Clough was a talented player in his own right before segueing into coaching, though the film hints that he may not have been as good a player or coach as he believed, and Sheen is able to capture some of his playing talent as well as his strong-willed coaching style.
It also should be noted that Timothy Spall, forever doomed to be an underrated character actor, or "that bloke from that Mike Leigh movie", more than holds his own with Sheen on screen. The droop-faced Spall plays Clough's longtime sharp-minded and level-headed right-hand man Peter Taylor, whom a lot of people considered to be a major reason that Clough got as far as he did. Their eventual falling out due to a disagreement over their career paths forms the major spine of the film -- as important as the story of Clough's rivalry with Don Revie. Morgan and Hooper smartly realize that the friendship is more interesting and painful than the story of the two enemies. Where the film fudges on reality (spoiler alert of sorts: but while it has them eventually coming reconciling at the end, in real life their rift was not repaired by the time Peter Taylor passed away in 1990 -- though Clough and his family attended the funeral. Still, hard to blame the film for making that choice. Their fantasy is much more satisfying than the sadder reality.)Colm Meaney is quite fine as the arrogant, veteran manager whose incredibly huge shoes Clough has to fill and Jim Broadbent is at his broadbentiest playing put-upon Derby County owner Sam Longson. Also notable is Stephen Graham, a recognizable, short-statured actor who looks about as spot-on as Leeds captain Billy Bremner as any capable actor could possibly look. And Graham captures his taciturn quiet stubborness quite well, his chippy on the field style and his cool surface with rage boiling underneath off the field.
I think even more than the Leeds years I enjoyed the period where Clough built the ramshackle Derby County team (both the stadium/pitch, and the team itself, were rotting). That part of the story is one of those getting the band/team back together sequences that I find irresistible, and the meetings between his Derby team and Revie's famous, more supported Leeds squad are memorable, indeed. (One odd sequence shows Clough unable to watch his own team playing, either out of superstition and/or nerves, and we becomes as tense and in the dark as he is. It's not your typical way of showing a climactic sports match but it works because you're in Clough's point of view.)
And the soccer -- sorry, football, for those in the UK -- scenes they do depict, whether practice scenes or actual matches, are expertly captured. From the mud and muck in a rainy Derby field to a disastrous Leeds match, you get enough of a taste of the sport to get the sense of the players and the teams' growth (or lack of it).
Something about Damned United keeps it from being an utter classic -- whether it's the the schizophrenic nature of the story that makes it hard to connect to or frustration with Clough's choices, true though they may be -- but despite that I have to say that it is quite likely one of the best soccer films ever. This may not be high praise given the lack of a wide array of choices in that arena, but it's undeniably about as good as we've gotten. As a soccer film, it's in the first division.