Publishing and what-not I’ll worry about tomorrow…
THE DAMNED UNITED
|Biography/Sport 98 min UK/USA 2009|
|d, Tom Hooper; w, Peter Morgan (based on a novel by David Peace)|
|Soccer rivalries in 1970s England: upon becoming the new manager of the England national side, local favorite Don Revie is replaced as manager of league champions Leeds United by a brash younger man who can hardly stand the sight of him – the one-in-a-million, now legendary Brian Clough (Michael Sheen). Can the new kid in town ever escape his predecessor’s giant shadow? More to the point, will his new team ever let him? A true story, as filtered through an adaption of a best selling novel.|
I got into Fenway Park with a $15 standing-only ticket, but sat, in the roof terrace section and next to my friend Rob (Sidcup), in a $90 seat, both of us giddy getting away with it and not in the least bit desirous of being any other place in the world. There was, in the parlance of such affairs, ‘rain in the air,’ yet not enough of it to keep the game in front of us from rattling along, or the waves of watching fans from chattering and thundering, settling back and fidgeting, penciling in the box score or scuttling back and forth for pretzels, sodas or a smoke. Behind our backs, there was a chill wind whistling around, and yet so many bodies unwittingly gave each other a little touch of warmth. In any case, high above our heads giant floodlights were crowding out the night still more assertively, thousands of filaments resolute, like the rest of us, that for the playing of this game it’s not the wrong time of year, or the wrong time of day, and that even inclement weather can’t hold us back from caring, and cheering, and hoping the away team will go home unhappy.
I don’t remember who the other team were, mind you. Or the score for that matter, or any of the pitchers on the mound (three years worth of swings, hits and misses later, whoever would?). At some point that night, however, somewhere between the top of the 1st and the bottom of the 9th, we all witnessed a single play I expect never to forget, no matter how many times the instant replay reel fizzes through my head… Someone hit a double, and David Ortiz ran from first base to third.
After very much enjoying the book upon which The Damned United is based, a good few months ago, I went to see it with high hopes, especially after liking every bit as much the last film to bring the abundant talents of Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen together, Frost/Nixon. Happily, in the manner of a favorite team winning in the cup, it delivered. Principally, I’m still more glad to note, by capturing a little something of a little something countless other sport films make even a dreadful hash of finding: the difficult to grapple, harder yet to explain, elusive appeal of sport. The rugged edge of rational thinking that forever teeters, at least for those of us who cannot help but care, on knee-jerk devotion.
First, second, and third, The Damned United recognizes with unusual clarity that a liking for sport is seldom ever predicated on winning. Yes, we probably all have in common the desire to be there when our team does eventually win, but only the shallowest, stupidest, or most green-around-the-ears sports fan fails to see that anticipating victory is fine in theory, madness in practice. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the home run isn’t hit, the last-minute goal refuses to come, the other guy doesn’t miss. We hope for the best simply because it hardly ever happens. So it is that The Damned United welcomes, even relishes, the flip-side of glory: disappointment, overreaching, failure, coming close but falling short. The brute facts, indeed, that would likely make us weary were they not, instead, the true traces of lifelong allegiance. If respite from suffering is rare, you better stick around awhile (though equally, of course, if your team wins too often, it gets to be less satisfying).
Unlike so many sport films, therefore, The Damned United does not simply regard sport as a convenient hook upon which to hang a narrative. It’s not an upward rising curve, though victory remains a part of the whole, and nor does it set its sights on overcoming odds or a grandstanding finish. Rather, The Damned United looks at sport, football in particular, through a much wider lens, and so ascertains a part of ‘playing’ movies typically choose to ignore: that because fortunes, no matter what, always ebb and flow, there’s something else many times more likely to keep us turning up, through good times and bad. Incorporating those of us following along and everyone actually involved: the ‘players.’ A great mass of people who rely upon each other, as The Damned United knows, to make something intrinsically meaningless meaningful. Whose silent pact provides a crucible for characters and solid ground for dreaming, a special place where sliding through mud and shouting in the rain isn’t lunacy but acceptable behavior.
Helped along enormously by its wonderful cast, The Damned United works so well because it makes room for people. Most of all, the charismatic figure Michael Sheen is given the hard task of capturing, the one and only Brian Clough – but equally the other men (for, as depicted, it’s very much a male world) who, variously, he relied upon and hated, was beholden to and jealous of. As in football, as in life, personalities that sometimes clash, sometimes coalesce. The domineering leaders. The natural lieutenants. The old guard and the new. The strutting and the nervous. Rivalries and cliques, insecurities and fears.
Vividly, then, with humor and with heart, here’s a film that has a whole lot of life coursing through it. Yes, as with David Peace’s original book, it may be difficult to gauge how ‘accurately’ so, and there may well be gaps and biases either unduly injurious or flattering, but such things needn’t keep the forest from the trees. Especially with actors as talented as Sheen, Jim Broadbent and Timothy Spall involved, The Damned United is, I suggest, that most precious thing, a sports film worthy of the name.
Doesn’t sound like much on the page, does it? A double, followed by a routine piece of base-running; it’s the kind of thing you might see a dozen times in a game. What’s missing from this picture, though, is the real reason I remember it, the reason it remains impossible to think about without my lips darting up to meet said thought with a big, stupid grin. You see, it wasn’t just anyone running into third, it was David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz, the fearsome slugger whose shear bulk and force of personality entreaties to be the sun about which we mere satellites rotate. The man whose mood always shows, barometer-like, the fortunes of the team. By inclination jolly and noted for his ‘bigness,’ he can start to shrink before your eyes when all isn’t well, is a colossus capable of hunching. Beware the booming stride that falters: the Red Sox are slipping. And keep a close watch on those eyes – after a home run they always look up to the heavens; through a lean spell of form, they’re likely downward cast, unwilling to be met.
Nor, most important of all, was it any kind of base-running. Instead, Ortiz charged around second base with all the furious effort a body not made for running could ever hope to muster, his great hulking frame as determined as it was ungainly. Narrowing in on his target, third base oblivious and empty, his every footfall stripped away the contest that carried them, as though it were their business alone that gathered the rest of us together, 35,000 fans and two sets of players. Even, for the span of a thrilling second, maybe two at most, the very whereabouts of the baseball itself, in a sport where its whereabouts is all, become utterly irrelevant. Had he cared to glance behind, Ortiz might have seen how far away it was, how, with it still bumbling about by the warning track in right field, he had all the time in the world to journey at his leisure. But no. Some wicked mix of momentum and adrenaline had obviously seized him, had fixed upon the need for a crowd-pleasing dive. At full speed, head-first, arms out, like Superman himself.
You’ll never persuade me the earth didn’t shake. Or, that back to his feet at last and brushing off the dirt, Big Papi’s beaming smile didn’t fleetingly become the epicenter of a world where only good things are possible.