Borg vs McEnroe (2017)
Shia LaBeouf, Svirrir Gudnason, Stellen Skarsgård. Written by Ronnie Sandahl. Directed by Janus Metz Pedersen.
In July 1980, the world’s second-ranked men’s tennis player John McEnroe faced the world’s best, Björn Borg, in the finals at Wimbledon, in what many have called the greatest tennis match ever. I hadn’t yet gotten into tennis, but I had discovered CNN Sports Tonight, a nightly half-hour television program featuring highlights and commentary like nothing I’d seen before. Until then, my sports highlights existed only in the final five minutes of the local news, or during Howard Cosell’s “Halftime Highlights” on Monday Night Football.
This is when my interest in tennis was born: with CNN’s regular coverage of McEnroe’s serve and volley on the court, and his tantrums on the sideline. He was the kind of athlete I always favored as a boy. Muhammad Ali, Ken Stabler, Reggie Jackson, John McEnroe. Don’t tell any of those guys what to do, because they’ll just do the opposite, and then beat you while you whine.
I say all this to explain how I was once an avid pro tennis fan, John McEnroe was my gateway drug, there was an era when the characters in tennis were as fascinating as its competitions, and Borg vs McEnroe is a great trip back to a much funner time. You don’t have to be a tennis fan to appreciate the film; in fact, it might be better for your enjoyment if you’re not. Still, if you are a fan, you’ll appreciate the memories of the stoic Borg, who had won Wimbledon four straight years before 1980, and tempestuous McEnroe, gunning for the world’s top ranking.
Believe it or not, Shia Labeouf is excellent as McEnroe. I suspect Labeouf identifies with McEnroe in important ways. You never really think you’re looking at McEnroe’s body or face, but you do get a sense you’re seeing the person. Svirrir Gudnason looks exactly like my memory of Borg.
The film sets us up for this Wimbledon final with flashes back to each man’s past, framing the confrontation at Centre Court as a meeting of surprisingly similar characters, each with sympathy for the other. It’s a compelling story, drawn so that rather than foils, the athletes are parallels. If you’re hoping to get a deep psychological exploration of what made these seemingly different men so great at hitting a yellow ball, you’ll think this movie is a tease. If you’re looking for a little bit of character analysis to go with your service aces, you’ll be pleased.
Viewers are unlikely to agree with my one major gripe unless they enjoy watching tennis on television or in person. The action on the court is edited in such a way that you don’t see very much tennis. This is utterly maddening. You see and hear the racquets making contact; you see the expressions, the blurs of power and speed. You sometimes see the ball hitting the court. You almost never see a rally from serve to point, and you see very little of the action from the usual angle, behind the receiver and over his shoulder. With the exception of one series of very cool overhead shots, none of this is an improvement in any way.
You could make the argument that it makes for better cinema and better storytelling, and I might understand. After all, in Searching for Bobby Fisher, a movie I love, I never complained that chess games (or whatever they’re called) aren’t shown in real time with realistic flow, because who wants to watch that except maybe chess spectators? However, this is tennis, not chess!
Thank goodness for the film’s ending, which heals some of my wounds. Where the tennis action fails, the closing scene succeeds, showing us the action and giving us a resolution the competition denies us. Very, very well done. Stick around for the closing credits too, which treat us to actual photos of Borg and McEnroe. They made me a little teary.
As a film lover, I think it’s excellent. As a sports film lover, I think it’s pretty good. As a sports lover, I think it’s agonizing. For this, I have to penalize the film one point for unsportsmanlike behavior.