Two similar films this weekend, both bio-pics but with varying degrees of success.
First off was The Damned United, not so much a look at Brian Clough’s disastrous career at Leeds United as to the (proposed) reasoning behind his dislike for the club and its former manager. It succeeds for the most part due to Martin Sheen’s performance, which once again moves past the uncanny novelty factor in the first ten minutes to become a genuinely affectionate look at the man.
The film has a lot going for it and feels a lot bigger than what I suspect was a limited budget. It makes up for its TV centric production values (it’s partly funded by the BBC and has the feel of one of their longer drama productions) off the strength of its cast – all of whom are excellent. More importantly it doesn’t focus on the football, realising that it is pretty much the worst cinematic sport in that it lacks the immediacy of say boxing. It is still a sports film, but the sport once again tells us about the characters rather than the sport itself.
Second was Milk, which whilst good is certainly not without problems (it’s probably the weakest film I’ve seen at a cinema for a long time). Part of the problem is that it’s too ones sided in it’s portrayal of the main character out of respect for the good he did. We are pretty much presented with a portrait of a martyr that could do no wrong – and somehow it just doesn’t ring true. Far more interesting were the characters that surround him (the performances were better as well), all presented in shades of grey instead of pristine white. Even Josh Brolin (as the man who eventually murdered Harvey Milk) manages to present a far more believable character who isn’t entirely unsympathetic despite obvious failings.
It is this greyness that made The Damned United a much better film, the protagonist, whilst not shown as the complete tyrant he could occasionally be, came off as far more human because of his failings, and the Director wasn’t afraid to focus on them (his attitude to Leeds being seen as a clear case of revenge).
Both are good films, but it is United that gets the recommendation because of it’s more honest feeling portrayal of a complex man.