James Bond and archenemy Ernst Blofeld meet for a tense discussion of global espionage. Their guns are holstered, but their hands are ready to draw. At the emotional high point of the confrontation, we cut jarringly to M giving his reaction to the whole affair.
This Bond versus Blofeld scene might sound like a parody out of 30 Rock, but just imagine what James Bond could become now that Peter Morgan is filling in as the scribe.
Morgan is the screenwriter behind two of the most acclaimed films of recent years: The Queen and Frost/Nixon. His style is low-key, pulling short, essential moments from modern history and turning them into personal dramas about the conflict between two opposing forces.
He certainly is good at what he does. His two screenplays that strayed from his successful formula — The Last King of Scotland and The Other Boleyn Girl — are significantly less memorable, but The Queen and Frost/Nixon were Oscar-nominated for a reason.
The Damned United, Morgan’s latest film, is currently enjoying a modest run in a few Los Angeles theaters. The story of a legendary British football manager’s disastrous tenure as head of the famous Leeds United in 1974, the film arrives with the sports movie tag that often indicates clichés.
As with his other historical dramas, however, Morgan’s latest never takes the expected angle. At its heart, The Damned United is essentially a character study about three very different men — Michael Sheen’s Brian Clough, his assistant coach Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) and his bitter rival Don Revie (Colm Meaney). The script is his most ambitious and manipulative, moving effortlessly between 1974 and the preceding years to develop Clough’s obsession with Revie while constantly changing our perception of the protagonist.
As part of the reason why Morgan’s films are consistently the best-acted pieces around, Sheen deserves special mention. Sheen played essential supporting roles in The Queen and Frost/Nixon, and The Damned United represents his first chance to break out of the bounce-board mode and into a genuine starring role. As the egomaniacal, obsessive, intensely likeable Clough, Sheen delivers — and it’s unfortunate that we’ve entered the season where this begins to lose all meaning — one of the best performances of the year.
For Morgan’s films, the X-factor is inevitably the director. Stephen Frears, one of the very best un-ambitious filmmakers working in the industry, filmed The Queen in perfect teleplay style, using digital cameras to make almost everything look not quite cinematic. Far inferior is the bland stylistic morass of Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, full of flashy shots that favor of tables, cameras, chairs — everything except characters.
Tom Hooper, the relative unknown at the helm of The Damned United, gives the film a gritty look that well suits the subject matter. The film isn’t really about the actual game of football, but Morgan and Hooper perfectly understand and express the love-bordering-on-fanaticism that men like Clough feel for the game.
It’s easy to praise Morgan’s style because it is so conducive to well-directed, brilliantly acted character studies. Morgan’s latest film as screenwriter, however, suffers from the same problems inherent in that low-key documentary style that diminished the impact of The Queen and Frost/Nixon.
In The Queen, Morgan cuts away at the film’s most crucial moment, Queen Elizabeth’s televised apology to the British people. Helen Mirren won every acting award around for that role partially because she never, ever chews the scenery. Still, Morgan robs the moment the film builds to for an hour and a half of its force by refusing to allow Mirren to give the entire speech.
In Frost/Nixon, Morgan used sharp cutaways to quasi-documentary interviews of the characters reflecting on the action, a cheap tactic meant to inscribe the viewer’s mind with emotional instructions.
In the climax of that almost excellent film, also an apology by a head of state, Morgan takes the audience away from the action at the key emotional beat, jarring us with historical significance to erase the emotional impact. Curiously, those cuts are present in his original play, and it is curious that a playwright wouldn’t understand the importance of letting a scene play out without interruption.
In The Damned United, both Morgan and Sheen play Clough’s relationship with Revie with a degree of ambiguity. The film’s powerhouse climax — a side-by-side interview between the two coaches — suggests that Revie might not actually be a bad man and that the source of Clough’s obsession, which drives the film, is merely his own insecurities, a powerful statement about the character and sports figures in general.
Unfortunately, Morgan blows it in the final frames, mocking Revie’s later failures with a few obnoxious epilogue title frames, firmly establishing Clough as the hero and his rival as the villain. It dampens the impact that Morgan and Sheen worked so hard to create.
Regardless of that particular miscue, The Damned United is one of the year’s best, thanks to the usual combination of Morgan’s character writing ability and the acting of British regulars.
Morgan’s next film will return Sheen to the role of Tony Blair, a figure he has played so exceptionally in the past, sitting across from Dennis Quaid as Bill Clinton. Rumors are also swirling around Sheen as primary Bond antagonist Ernst Blofeld for the Morgan’s Bond 23, but that speculation seems about as valid as Johnny Depp playing the Riddler in the next Batman film.
Still, the Morgan-Sheen connection has people talking, and putting a talented screenwriter not named Paul Haggis — that hack who helped script Casino Royale — behind a major Hollywood franchise yield some fresh results.
John Wheeler is a senior majoring in cinema-television critical studies and East Asian languages and cultures. His column, “The Multiplex,” runs Fridays.