Monday, March 30, 2009

Damned If They Do And Damned If They Don't

"They love me for what I'm not. They hate me for what I am."

I got to see The Damned United today. It's not the world-changing experience that the novel is. (How could it be?) The grabbing you by the throat and squeezing experience that David Peace achieved in his extraordinary book. The thoroughly pleasing pissing-off-some-people-who-probably-deserve-to-be-pissed-off experience that the novel, so manifestly, managed to be. But, the movie adaptation is a worthy effort and, almost, as great an achievement as its source text. Almost, but not quite. The 'almost', of course, is due to the thing that sports films generally - and football films in particular - always suffer from, the actual match scenes themselves. In this film, just as in Yesterday's Hero (remember that one?), When Saturday Comes, Goal, or The Arsenal Stadium Mystery for that matter, the recreation of football matches looks horribly stagy and fake. The day somebody can make a football movie without, actually, including any football action in it then that'll be a film well worth seeing.

I must say, I've been rather disappointed by Michael Sheen and director Tom Hooper spending most of the run-up to the movie's release seemingly in a fruitless attempt to get the Clough family onside with regard to the film. Stuff it, lads, if they don't want to know, knickers to 'em, you know? I understand the family's reasons, of course, they've got cherished memories of the man and they don't like having those interfered with. I daresay if this was a film about my dad, I might feel the same way. But, it isn't so, frankly, I don't. And I certainly wouldn't be so downright crass as to dismiss a creative work out-of-hand before having actually seen it. Besides, as previously noted, I ADORED the book and the Clough family's incessant bitching about how much they didn't only hardens my love for it. It is what it is, a novel. Just as the movie is a movie. Nobody ever said either was a documentary and nor should they even have to be.

Similarly, the BBC's Pat Murphy seeming to go out of his way to nitpick "seventeen factual inaccuracies in two viewings" - go back for more the second time, did you Pat? - deserves to be slapped down, hard. (As, indeed, Martin O'Neill did a pretty good job of doing in an interview with Murphy for 5Live available on Listen Again. Check it out, it's a very thoughtful, balanced and, ultimately, fair assessment of the film's faults and its highlights. Just the kind of thing that one would except from a knowledgeable chap like Martin, frankly.) Most of those errors cited by Murphy are minor to the point of being utterly irrelevent, though some are necessary and understandable for the purposes of containing an already sprawling plot. And the handful that aren't either are, frankly, not worth bothering with. Colin Todd was a defender not a midfielder. There wasn't a miner's strike going on the week Cloughie resigned at Derby. Etc. Etc. So? To sum up, I never knew Brian Clough personally, although I saw him on the telly a lot when I was growing up and I thought he was bloody fantastic. I wished he managed my club instead of Gordon Lee/Richard Dinnis/Bill McGarry and all of the other nonentities and also-rans that Newcastle's board foisted us with. And, I suspect, up and down the country that was a feeling which was broadly shared by many other supporters of many different clubs. I thought he should have managed England and so, seemingly, did a vast number of other people in football ... except, tragically, for a handful of craven and wretched self-interest cowards in charge at the Football Association. But, isn't that always the way - prophets are seldom as highly regarded in their own backyard as elsewhere? I delighted in Brian's achievements at Forest and was sorry that he didn't retire a couple of years earlier than he did so that his final season didn't end in relegation. And I was sad when he died because, frankly, the world was a less fun place without him in it to cast his insightful, bitingly ironic eye on the delicious ironies of life. Did either the movie or the book The Damned United change any of that perception? No. If anything they both made me admire the man even more - for what he was, what he wasn't and what he could have been.

So, to the review: It's actually a rather odd movie in some ways as it's, essentially, a (theoretical and conceptual, I hasten to add) love story between Clough and Peter Taylor - played with a fine dose of earthy sagacity by the great Tim Spall. And, of course, the other central prop in the film is the great rivalry with - and, indeed, hatred for - Don Revie (a splendid turn by one of my favourite actors, Colm Meaney). The funny bits are genuinely funny (for example, a terrific running gag involving a succession of new singings at Derby being introduced, with a wave, to their chairman). The football scenes aside, there's much humour, warmth and energy in Michael Sheen's portrayal (and, at least one bit of genuinely impressive football skill. Then again, he was offered a trial for Arsenal as a teenager). Sheen's Brian Clough (rather like Sheen's Tony Blair or Sheen's David Frost) is a complex, passionate, ambitious, sometimes obsessive man but, you sense, essentially a good person - flawed by an occasional hubris but grounded by those around him and his love for them. Essentially, the character in the book, then. Whether the reason that Brian failed at Leeds United in those forty four days in the autumn of 1974 was because he didn't have Peter Taylor with him, or that he was fatally undermined by a combination of Revie's continued presence and the players determination to get him out (the film suggests it was a bit of both) has been the subject of much debate, several books and at least one court case. I offer no observations on this except to suggest that it is genuinely interesting to reflect, perhaps briefly, upon the relative affection with which Clough is generally held in football circles as compared to the real enmity that Leeds team inspired - and continues to inspire - pretty much everywhere in the football world bar West Yorkshire. Great team, don't get me wrong. But a hard team. A spiteful team. Should the Leeds players go and see the film? Well, Johnny Giles probably won't for a kick-off although, if I was him I would. The actor playing him is about a foot taller than he was. I'm not sure if you can sue a movie-maker over height issues. If I was Norman Hunter, I'd definitely want to see it because the cush foul the actor playing him commits on Sheen in a training session is the kind of thing old Bites Yer Legs would have loved.

Ultimately, then The Damned United is like most other films about sport - I'm thinking of the better ones, here; things like This Sporting Life, Raging Bull and Ali, mainly. It's stylish, it's affecting, it's well-made and beautifully acted. It's got a few things in it that some people with an agenda will probably try to quibble over but, ultimately I believe its heart is in, roughly, the right place and so is its brain. Unfortunately, as with every football film ever made (and probably that will ever be made), it's also got both feet tied together when it's supposed to be dribbling down the wing. An almost great film, then and definitely worth your money to go and see it, even if you don't particularly like football. If you do, then you need to see this - just ignore the ten minutes where they try to convince you that Chesterfield's ground is Wembley and stick on your video of Match of the Seventies over those bits. "Players lose you games, not tactics," Cloughie once said. "There's too much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win a game of dominoes."

Interestingly, the same thing continues to be true in the field of movie and literary reviews, Brian.