By Lee Savery
OUT 8th August
STUDIO Revolver Entertainment
DIRECTOR James Strong
STARS David Tennant, Jack O’Connell, Sam Claflin, Dougray Scott
(Originally Broadcast on BBC Two on 24th April 2011)
“The team that defined an era, and a disaster that tore them apart.”
We’ve never forgotten and we never will. The events leading up to and after the Munich Air Disaster, which claimed 23 lives (including 8 of the Manchester United team), are faithfully bought to the screen, in this moving film through the eyes, of Sir Matt Busby’s assistant Jimmy Murphy (Tennant) and Bobby Charlton (O’Connell).
With a powerful script based on first hand interviews with survivors and their families, United begins in September 1956 with a young whippersnapper Bobby Charlton desperate for his place in the United team. His wish is granted and, as history well knows, he is an instant success. The “Busby Babes” themselves are a success. They have won the league for two successive seasons and have now reached their second successive European Cup semi-final.
After the aircraft’s third attempt of a take-off from a fuel stop in Munich, it crashes. The scenes in the aircraft itself and the crash are hard to watch but this is because of how brilliantly recreated such a disaster can be. It is as upsetting as it should be. Seeing it from Charlton’s eyes gives us only an insight into his exact view of such a tragedy.
The remainder of the film deals with the shock and grief at the loss of boys that died and the beginning of the rebuild of Manchester United. Murphy fights off the Board of Directors’ request that the club should be closed down. He defies them by building a make-shift team for the match against Sheffield Wednesday. Meanwhile, Bobby Charlton is struggling to come to terms with the loss of his team-mates and his best friend Duncan Edwards and never wants to play football again.
The film ends at Wembley stadium just before the 1958 FA Cup final. Busby is back at work. Jimmy Murphy leads the team out with a phoenix (poetic licence) on the players chests. Murphy looks back on the team and sees the faces of the Babes that died. Gone, but never forgotten.
Many scenes are taken straight from history and it is obvious Chris Chibnall knows his stuff. Other football fact-based drama’s have relied too heavily on dramatic licence and the “twisting” of events (The Damned United especially). For most part Chibnall makes sure the story stays true to history (minus a few minor inaccuracies and naming Mark Jones as captain when it was Roger Byrne) and beautifully portrays why Manchester United are the Manchester United we know and love today.
Having said that, however, the story creates a hero and a villain out of it. Head of the FA, Alan Hardaker, is portrayed as the villain in this piece. His refusal to move the club’s fixture against Wolverhampton Wanderers is too easily associated with Busby’s decision to hire a private aircraft to fulfil that fixture. The scene with Hardaker racked with guilt and shaking on the phone only adds fuel to that fire. I will agree that all good drama’s need a villain but in this case, it does not feel right.
The portrayal of Matt Busby (Dougray Scott) received some criticism from the Busby family. Some of this is justified. At times, it feels like Busby is a gangster taken straight out of a 1940’s American gangster film with the hat, suit and pained expression included. Is that the Busby everyone knew? I doubt it.
These little criticisms aside, there are so many positives to see here. The two lead actors deserve all the plaudits. Jack O’Connell’s warm performance as Bobby Charlton does the man every justice and perfectly captures the joy, anguish and doubt of his early career. As the rest of the squad sang after his debut “There is only one Bobby Charlton” but you wouldn’t mind there being two watching O’Connell’s performance.
David Tennant’s acting ability is well known in the public eye due to his performance as a famous Time Lord. This high profile casting was, arguably, one of the reasons the BBC broadcast achieved a large audience and with that bought a new audience to the history of Man United. He does not disappoint as Jimmy Murphy. He is superb. He plays a Jimmy Murphy that is the real hero of the story and is the real hero of Manchester United. The way he should be played.
United throws you right back to football of a bygone era and brings with it every emotion a human being can experience. At its heart, United is a superb drama with or without the weight of history behind it. You will cry watching it or, if you are made of much sterner stuff, you will at least feel a lump in your throat.
Every United fan should be well educated on the events of 6th February 1958. When we bring a new generation of United fans into the world, this film is a great educational tool. This film shows how Manchester United carried on in the face of adversity. This film shows this club will never die. This film shows this club, United.
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