I'm helping coordinate a new soccer-themed film festival to occur in San Francisco in 2009 -- more on that soon -- but to help get things started we've launched a blog to both keep people informed and also chatter on about soccer (both movies and the sport itself). Go here to Goals on Film. A Soccer Film Festival (and blog). One of my entries looks back on the 1981 film Victory (aka Escape to Victory), starring Sly Stallone as a, yes, goalkeeping POW.
(Meanwhile, coming here soon will be my best of 2009 list, and a couple of reviews. Stay tuned and happy holidays and all that rot.)
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.
The American soccer team seemingly came back from the dead in the Confederation Cup in South Africa, a sort of World Cup warm-up tourney as much for the host country as for the participants, defying all odds by miraculously getting into the semi-finals before then shocking Spain 2-nil to make the championship game. They may have ultimately lost 3-2 to Brazil, after the latter stormed back from an improbably 2-0 halftime deficit to take over the game. And while I personally will say I'm proud of their efforts as a team to show the world they have good players and can compete, I was also glad to hear players and the head coach say afterwards they were bitterly disappointed with the loss. That's already a good sign they've come a long way in a short time. Better than hearing "I'm proud of our team, we consider this a moral victory" and so on.
But whatever this means as far as where the US will stand in world soccer, what is also interesting to me is hearing perspectives on soccer fandom here in the States. There's still the stereotype that no one here cares about the world's most popular sport. While clearly it does not have the same level of obsession here that does, say, the NBA or American football, it continues to grow in leaps and bounds in my estimation. Part of that is just having the constant influx of immigrants, and children of immigrants, bringing their passion for the game from their homelands; part of it is just a constant upswing in the numbers of people playing the game, each subsequent generation is more likely to have played the game than the last; part of it is just increasing global awareness and interconnectedness. And I am just one of millions of American adults who play the sport.
I have no doubt that appreciation for watching soccer on television is improved greatly if one has actually played the game. Clearly, for those who do not, the action is not as easily embraced.
But while I have no problem with hearing an American say "I am not interested in soccer" it's words that follow that irk me: "...and neither does anyone else here." The implication is often that, I don't care so why should anyone? What can the universe really gain from that attitude other than your place in it as a willfully ignorant soul?
It speaks to something greater, this discourse on soccer's popularity in the United States, than just the game itself. It speaks to whether we as a people are broadening our horizon, or willing to, or simply wanting to close down.
I am an optimist and believe that Americans who appreciate the sport will continue to increase in number, and to parallel that, Americans will continue to become more and more globally interconnected.
It's a beautiful game. And I'd be happy to explain to any skeptic why that is over a beer sometime.
I'm hosting a live chat during today's Mexico at USA World Cup-qualifying soccer game, partially as a way to test out the CoverItLive live blog interface in preparation for GreenCine's Oscar Live blog. But also as a way to chat with fellow soccer fans! So join me today at 4pm PST/7pm EST at the chat below. This way I can test out my moderating skills. The game will be televised on ESPN2, and you can follow it online as well. And here! Join us. (And behave yourself.)
As much as I love pro-football (American-style), and as much as this particular game came down to an incredible finish, there are some things bigger than the sport, there are some things that make you wonder if all the hits and licks are worth it.
At any rate, these two columns capture both the incredible high of the miracle finish in Sunday's Denver-Buffalo game, and the tragic low in the same game.
(by Stephen Fatsis, NPR commentator and author of the book on kickers, A Few Seconds of Panic, based on his own experience as a training camp kicker)
I wasn't at the game in Orchard Park, but I did watch it live via a heaven-sent (well, China-sent), illegal transmission
on my computer. Afterward, like a teenage Bill Belichick studying tape
of Navy games or a Kennedy-assassination wackjob deconstructing the
Zapruder film, I paused and played and paused and played the NFL.com highlights
of the final seconds about 30 times. If you thought the play was
incredible in real time, it's even more remarkable broken down.
Tom Jackson, former Broncos linebacker
and now a broadcaster, hosts an irreverent Monday-night segment on ESPN
indelicately titled "Jacked Up!" that celebrates the league's five
fiercest hits of the week, as his buddies in the studio ooh and ah with
delight, and network executives can feel good about themselves because
nothing worse than a man's pride gets hurt in the videotaped
But does it knock some sense into any of us when Everett cannot get up?
get all jacked up about slobber-knocking tackles that serve as the
NFL's rocking soundtrack. And maybe it's safer if we don't examine our
delight in the pounding rhythms of the game too closely.
For his participation in the gruesome bloodletting of
dogs forced to snarl and bite in the name of twisted entertainment,
Atlanta's Michael Vick is vilified, while the disgraced Falcons
quarterback awaits to hear how long he will spend in jail.
Forgive me for what seems a sports-related digression, but I had to write something about the tragic loss of Darrent Williams. I was already a bit bummed that my Broncos had blown their chance to make the playoffs on Sunday, but that seems so inconsequential now after their starting cornerback (the "other one" after Champ Bailey), the young and talented Darrent Williams was gunned down while riding in a limo after a party early New Year's morning. He was 24. He had two young children. More than being a great player, he was also a good guy. These kinds of awful things happen far too often, but this one seems to have affected me more than usual - Why do we feel emotional about some deaths - when it's a "stranger" - and not others? Perhaps because I'd been following his career up to this point.
At any rate, one interesting side effect of this tragedy is a debate about guns in America - as exemplified by the discussion boards on the Denver Post after this happened. Check this one out (I chimed in there, as you can see.) If nothing else good comes out of Williams' death, maybe it could be more people taking a good hard look at gun violence. I'd like to think that, but each time something like this happens, few changes seem to occur, while the same "guns don't kill people" rhetoric comes from the NRA.
Further signs that idiots are running the asylum and greed is ruining sports (not that these thoughts haven't been said aloud previously in the past, oh, 30, or 80 years, but anyway:)
1) The San Jose Earthquakes, two time champion of Major League Soccer are not only moving from there to Houston, TX, they are changing their nickname to "1836." This idea was inspired by German soccer teams using the year their teams were founded as their nickname - as in, C Schalke 04, TSV 1860 Munich, and so on. But the Houston franchise didn't pick theyear it was founded, instead it chose the year the city of Houston was founded. Or more specifically, the year it was wrested away from Mexico.
Houston has 1.7 million Latinos. The team's logo has a picture of Sam Houston on horseback. Do they think Latinos will happily wear team shirts? Memo to the team: Please fire your marketing department, start over, choose new nickname. Memo to the league: Wake up. And read Raul Ramos' piece on the Houston Chronicle and Graham Jones' piece on this in the LA Times.
2) Monday Night Football will now officially suck (the games this past year sucked for the most part but at least there was Madden and Michaels calling the action): As it switches over to ESPN next season, the new announcing team will be Mike Tirico, Joe Thiesmann, and Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser. Suck, suck, and suck. A bad announcer joined by two irritating analysts. What, Dennis Miller wasn't available, too? Can't wait. ESPN just spent a lot of money on games that less and less people will watch.