Borg vs McEnroe
2017, R, 108 min. Directed by Janus Metz. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Sverrir Gudnason, Stellan Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny, Björn Granath, David Bamber, Mats Blomgren, Ian Blackman, Leo Borg, Marcus Mossberg.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 13, 2018
Great sports rivalries lend themselves to the drama of cinema. Hunt and Lauda in Ron Howard's Rush. Louis and Schmeling in Joe and Max. King and Riggs in Battle of the Sexes. The idea of two talented, driven athletes, often of different backgrounds, clashing for reasons other than just winning, is pure movie gold.
Yet the rising star vs. the old master narrative is also prone to becoming formulaic. So the genius of Ronnie Sandahl's script for tennis drama Borg vs McEnroe is the subtext that, rather than being polar opposites, Björn Borg (Gudnason) and John McEnroe (LaBeouf) were near-identical, and recognized that in each other. Borg, the four-time Wimbledon champ, was a furious young man (played at first with pubescent anger by Leo Borg, and later with cosmic self-loathing by Mossberg); and rather than just a talented egomaniac, the loudmouthed McEnroe was a secret strategist, who recognizes the reality of the volcano under Scandinavia's carefully tended public image as a tennis machine.
The setting is the lead-up to the 1980 Wimbledon men's championship, still regarded as one of the all-time classic clashes – not because of the extraordinary quality of the playing, but because it started one of the defining feuds of the 1980s. Ice-Borg vs. Superbrat, it was dubbed, and it would be drama enough to simply re-enact that day. Yet Sandahl keeps the pair separate for most of the film’s duration, scouting each other’s games and strengths and weaknesses in hotel rooms and flickering TV screens.
It’s not the hothead vs. the cool talent: It’s two hotshots with very different approaches to the same problem of wanting people to concentrate on their game, not their personality. That’s where the real style clash comes in, with Gudnason stripping the seemingly implacable Borg naked, both physically and metaphorically. His would seemingly be the greater performance challenge, adding humanity and passion to the affable but implacable Borg; but it’s really in matching LaBeouf, who digs away hard to reveal the dedication behind the tantrum-throwing, racket-smashing upstart.
The elegant emotional narrative is informed by their toxic relationships with their fathers (Blomgren as the puritanical elder Borg, and Blackman as McEnroe senior, showing off his multitalented son like a trick-performing dog), plus Borg’s game-changing bond with coach/father figure Lennart Bergelin (Skarsgård, a granite block with sharp edges). It’s the devotion to that emotional truth that allows Metz (Armadillo) and cinematographer Niels Thastum (When Animals Dream) to step back, avoiding any major visual tricks. Instead, it’s just two equals on the court, facing off, knowing each other, understanding each other, and appreciating each other. It is rivalry as silent kinship.