In “United,” soccer is described as “beautiful” — a wondrous amalgam of a simple ball, freshly mown grass and men doing godlike things with their feet. Set in Manchester, England, in the 1950s, “United” pays full tribute to this beauty with loving attention to the details of the sport.
Everything from the fire-engine red uniforms of the title team, Manchester United, to the narrow, smoke-filled corridor leading to the players’ locker room, to the artistic chaos on the desk of team manager Matt Busby (Dougray Scott), the whole package (originally made for BBC TV) makes you swoon on its expertly executed nostalgia. It’s hard to resist comparing the then and now of professional soccer, and how so much of it has been altered (or often defiled) by big money.
Today, professional soccer players rank among the wealthiest people on the planet but “United” reminds us of a time when players earned £15 a week and could hardly scrape the cash together to take a girl dancing. A budding star player was nothing unless he got a slot on United’s first team, but once he got there the real, grueling work began.
“It’s a struggle to get in, it’s a struggle to stay on” says Duncan Edwards (Sam Claflin), a top-rank player who got on first at the tender age of 17. He also advises buddy teammate Bobby Charlton (Jack O’Connell) not to tell women that he’s a soccer player but a carpenter, as a soccer player’s paltry wages would only drive them away. Still “the lads” (as everyone in the film refers to them) on the first team are passionately in love with the sport. “Cherish every minute,” says team coach Jimmy Murphy (David Tennant), himself a former player who poured the whole of his youth into the game. “Because no player can go on forever.”
Surprisingly, “United” isn’t about athletic pep talks or even about soccer. It recounts a tragedy that befell the team in 1958, when 23 passengers including eight first team players were killed in a plane crash in Munich — Duncan among them. Manager Matt was badly injured and it was months before he could walk. Back in Manchester, there was talk of shutting down the club altogether, but Jimmy takes a stand and convinces the sponsors to stay on. He held that in the face of disaster the only possible course for survival was to carry on. In a moving speech that has more resonance than any campaign-trail sound bite, Jimmy says: “How we are in the future will be founded on how we behave today.”
History has proved him right. With eight players gone and Bobby too traumatized to stand on the pitch, Jimmy pulls Manchester United out of the ashes and nurtures it back to its former glory, to a time when the team was known as “The Busby Babes” — a tough, young group of lads whose legendary feats filled the football stadium.
Now, United is (arguably) one of the greatest soccer clubs the world has known. An additional bonus to Japanese soccer fans (and the likely reason why the film is opening here at this time) is that Japan’s very own Shinji Kagawa has signed on to the team.
Having said so, the film is a bit disappointing in that there are hardly any actual scenes on the field, apart from old news footage. The cast look convincing enough, but the shots of Old Trafford — United’s home stadium — are not (too much reliance on the CGI “make-up”). Director James Strong’s reluctance to take the film out on the pitch is perhaps understandable. After all, the story isn’t about the game but the plane crash and subsequent events. Besides, no amount of acting could reenact a real game. As David Beckham once (reputedly) said, “a footballer can be a model but it doesn’t work the other way around” … or something to that effect, amen.
“United” is however, a powerhouse work that speaks to soccer fans certainly, but also to people who couldn’t care less. It’s a story of what choices were made when the chips were down, all around. And at this point in time, who could say there are no lessons to be gleaned here?
“Don’t be another one who died out there,” says Jimmy to Bobby. “We need you.” The real Jimmy Murphy was apparently also a man short on words and in this, there’s sheer poetry to the brevity of his sentences. Which brings me to the conviction that what the world really needs is a legion of inspiring coaches: people who keep the flame burning, despite the raging storm.