Borg vs McEnroe is structured around the legendary Wimbledon Men’s Final of 1980, with the primary focus the battle of wills and psychological profiles of the two great rivals, who are shown to have more in common than might be imagined. Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason are inspired casting choices as McEnroe and Borg respectively.
Say what? A movie recreation of the legendary Borg vs McEnroe Wimbledon Men’s Final of 1980? As someone who watched that stupendous event live, I couldn’t help but wonder what possessed Swedish director Janus Metz to set himself such an audaciously ambitious task for his debut feature film.
I’m glad to report the news is good – actually, better than good. Metz has pulled off this horrendously difficult gig astonishingly well. Wisely, while he’s structured the film around the Final, he’s made the primary focus the psychological profiles of the great rivals, Borg and McEnroe. Thus, more screen time is taken up with flashing back to their formative years, delving into their personal lives and contrasting their respective approaches to preparing for the match, than with the match itself.
That said, the Centre Court action feels pretty real. Any tennis fan will notice that the play falls short of Borg and McEnroe’s dazzling standard, but amped-up ball-on-racquet thwacks create the illusion of power, and fast cut close-ups of the players mid-rally keep things looking acceptably authentic. Some brilliant cinematography and editing heightens the drama of the play by way of a diverse range of camera shots, including some impressively angled close overheads (drone-camera?). Add a white-knuckle-tense musical soundtrack, crowd noise and commentators going nuts and the effect is pretty damned exciting. Regardless of whether you know the result of the match, the crucial points of the set as presented here are pulse-pounding dramatic peaks. Some achievement!
The casting is inspired, particularly of real-life bad boy Shia LaBeouf as McEnroe. Notoriously volatile and socially abrasive in real life if the gossip columnists are to be assigned any cred, LaBeouf is a perfect psychological fit for the part of the Superbrat and plays him to perfection. He even looks the part on court, particularly in his serving action, despite his physical resemblance to McEnroe being only acceptable rather than striking. Sverrir Gudnason, on the other hand, is a dead ringer for Borg physically, and also manages to convincingly convey his ruthless, relentless, machine-like on-court efficiency as a player.
The Borg character as presented here is far more complex off-court than on. As a child, he’s depicted as being already obsessed with tennis and displays a brattish temperament not unlike McEnroe’s. As an adolescent in competition with similarly talented peers his outbursts of rage so undermine his prospects of a future as a pro tennis player that his coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård) threatens to quit unless his fiery young charge pledges that he will never again show emotion on court. Borg yields to the ultimatum and the Iceborg is born.
Less time is devoted to McEnroe’s formative years. He is shown to have a perfectionist mother who chides him for “only” scoring 97% in a maths test – and that’s about it. His character is revealed through his adult behaviour: prickly responses to TV interviewers, hard partying, a proclivity for loud rocknroll…
While McEnroe and Borg appear are promoted as polar opposites (“fire and ice”), they are shown here to be flipsides of the same coin. Both are driven, obsessed with winning; both have their demons. The stark contrast in their on-court temperaments comes down partly to their coaching, partly to their differing strategies for maximising focus and performance and dealing with the immense tension and anxiety of the occasion. Both realise this as they study each other’s semi-final games coming into the Final – which, like any elite sporting contest, comes down to a battle of wills rather than athleticism, fitness and skill.
My only real criticism concerns the dialogue of the commentators, which is nothing like the real deal, and on occasions overtly and inappropriately explanatory. For example: “Now we’re going to have a fourth set, and if Borg wins he’ll take the championship for the fifth year in succession.” It’s a pity. All it would have taken to iron out these sorts of amateurish wrinkles would have been some consultation with pro commentators.
Otherwise, Borg vs McEnroe is a ripper of a flick that gives some fascinating insight – factual, going by this interview with McEnroe, although he contradicts that here – into the personalities and relationship of two of the greatest ever tennis players, and conjures up improbably well the excitement, nail-biting tension and epic quality of that famous Wimbledon showdown of 1980.
Borg vs McEnroe screening dates (2017-18 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
UWA Somerville: 18 Dec-24 Dec 2017, 8.00 PM
ECU Joondalup Pines: 26 Dec-31 Dec 2017, 8.00 PM
For a complete list of Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives