The Damned United
A work of ‘historical faction,’ and based on the book of the same name by David Peace, “The Damned United” tells the story of Brian Clough’s disastrous 44-day tenure as manager of Leeds United in 1974, having made his name at unheralded Derby County. It’s a film even those who loathe football will enjoy — it evokes nostalgia for the era, wonderfully, by its recreation of the world when footballers wore their hair long, shorts short, and drawing a big club in the cup was celebrated with a curry in town. Happier, simpler times.
A sport now populated by multimillionaires was once the preserve of ordinary people — and with the football currently suspended, it’s an uplifting way to inject it back into your life. Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall as Clough’s assistant Peter Taylor, and Colm Meaney as his great rival, Don Revie, all contribute excellent performances, but the star, naturally, is Clough himself — expertly (some might even say spookily) brought back to life by Michael Sheen.
Any Given Sunday
American sports films are all meant to follow a set pattern — unknown rookie with a hard past seizes a rare opportunity to take centre stage, rises to the top, gets the girl, overcomes the adversary and is crowned a champ. But “Any Given Sunday” bucks that trend, bringing the illusion of your sporting heroes into sharp focus.
The harsh realities of substance abuse, injury, sex and greed collide with the fairytale storyline — from Dennis Quaid’s legendary quarter-back risking his motor functions at the demand of his wife, Al Pacino’s old-fashioned coach fighting the inevitable end of his career, to Jamie Foxx’s young buck superstar getting a harsh lesson when his teammates turn on him. Gridiron is a sport that takes no prisoners — and neither does this film. But it does, of course, give the world one little ray of positivity: a speech by Pacino about perseverance that will have you on your feet in your living room beating your chest.
This American classic is a little more Hollywood than “Any Given Sunday,” about a high school basketball coach (Samuel L. Jackson) who seeks to turn around the lives of underperforming inner-city boys struggling with failing grades and personal lives, and threatening to be sucked into crime. It, too, is famous for a speech — about fear, and greatness, of course, that is every bit as moving as, and ever so slightly more poetic than, Pacino’s. Personally, I don’t think it matches up to Sheen’s Clough shouting “bollocks to Don Revie!” for inspiration, but each to their own.
Chariots of Fire
You’ve all heard the theme, and now’s a great time to revisit the film that made it famous. The tale of two British runners, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, competing at the 1924 Olympics, inspired by their personal struggles — Abraham’s by his experiences of anti-Semitism, and Liddell, son of Scottish missionaries, by his need to please God.
By turns uplifting, humbling and inspiring, it almost deserves a different category from the sports films around it — from a different age, about one even more alien to the modern world of high-octane athletics we have today. In that sense, it is a film that welcomes all viewers — sports lovers and the sedentary alike. If you don’t want the adrenaline, and just a good, old fashioned British film to raise the spirits, then this is the one.
At the other end of the spectrum we have something so high-octane you’ll need to lie down afterwards — the epic duel between F1 legends James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the 1970s. Featuring Daniel Bruhl and Chris ‘is my heart racing from his racing or his hair?’ Hemsworth, the film speeds its way round the bends of the ups and downs of the duo’s professional fued and the disastrous consequences of it.
But it isn’t just a tale of two champions going head-to head — the film also alludes to the personal friendship and underlying respect the pair had for each other. As with all motor-racing, for the neutral, the interest lies in the humans behind the machines, rather than the machines themselves. And if every you wanted inspiration for overcoming an act of God, you’ll find it here.
Anything with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon in rugby shorts was going to be a hit, so it’s no surprise that the film was, too.
Set against the backdrop of the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the rise of Mandela to the presidency, it is a story of a nation trying to reconcile lifetimes of oppression, violence and trouble. Through this, the predominantly white Springboks become an unlikely symbol of unity as the country hosts the 1985 Rugby World Cup. It’s poignant, perhaps bordering on a little saccharine, but we can forgive it this failing — that and the shaky Afrikaner accents. It’s a great story featuring a stellar cast, that can’t fail to make you happy. Even if you’re from New Zealand and had to sit through the agony of that final.