Director: Janus Metz Pedersen
Nordisk Film/SF Studios/Neon
Forget the “the best Tennnis film ever”-styled taglines Borg vs McEnroe is an incredible movie – it manages to be all at once completely and utterly about sport (and within that very much about tennis – as I guess you’d presume, if not hope) and yet it’s also at the very same time completely irrelevant whether you have an interest in the history or the sport. For here is a film about human psychology, about the battle between opponents and how it is almost always really a battle against one’s self.
So, Ronnie Sandahl’s screenplay looks at the 1980 Wimbledon men’s final between Björn Borg (Sweden) and John McEnroe (America). Borg was the favourite – it would be his fifth Wimbledon win, his 10th career Grand Slam singles title, McEnroe was the potential upsetter, possibly a better all-around player but neither calm nor measured. Borg was the iceman – McEnroe the loudmouth. His racket-throwing and umpire-arguing meant that when he did the talk-show circuit he barely got a chance to talk about the actual game.
With this as our backdrop we’re taken back to scenes from Borg’s childhood – a hothead who learns to repress the rage, focussing only on tennis, and ball by ball.
What we do learn is that, as with the best hero/villain stories or opponent assessments these two talents are more similar than they are different.
And then we watch as Borg nearly unravels. We feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. Sverrir Gudnason has a remarkable presence – he is the spit of Borg, his icy stare and focus. Shia LaBeouf looks less like McEnroe but is mesmerising nonetheless – he channels the attitude, the spirit, and if he relishes the temper-tantrums he always gives us more to think about, reminds us that McEnroe was always about more than the highlight reel of associated antics.
When we reach the final it’s as nail-biting as any great game of tennis and the Janus Metz Pedersen works every angle to put across that this is real, no cutting to actual footage, just two brilliant actors giving it all and every bit of period detail that is require. It’s tense and beautiful to watch.
I’ve seen Borg vs McEnroe twice – I loved it both times but the second time it’s real profundity spoke to me. Virtuoso performances from the two leads and a subtle comment on the pressure that must be absorbed to succeed; how the difference, too, between first and second is so slight in almost every way apart from the perception of one being the best, how it comes down to what happens on the day. And that for all of the skill, grit and determination we must remember the ultimate factor is a case of luck. We call it intestinal fortitude or guts or any other tough name. But it’s luck. Plain. Simple.
Borg vs McEnroe might not sell itself instantly, it’s thoughtful, purposeful, slow. It’s steely. And humourless. And its prosaic title doesn’t grab you. But in a way I was not expecting I found this thrilling. Hugely compelling. One of my favourite movies of recent times.