Borg vs. McEnroe: Great Rivalry Makes Great Film
Review by Aaron Haughton
Scandinavian documentarian Janus Metz serves up a wallop of a feature film debut with Borg vs. McEnroe, a thoroughly engaging depiction of rivalry between two of the greatest tennis players of all time and the match that made them infamous. More anecdotal that truth, but centered around actual events (1980 Wimbledon tournament), the film will have you on edge even if you know the outcome of the famous match, and draws tight psychological portraits of both Borg and McEnroe that are as enlightening as they are entertaining.
Like last year's Battle of the Sexes, Borg vs. McEnroe manages to succeed where nearly every film about tennis before them faulted; both films are genuinely captivating, true to the sport, and properly set up the stakes. Plus, both films come with an added bonus: you don't have to know much of anything about tennis to find enjoyment in each picture. While also technically a period piece, Borg doesn't have any grand political statements on gender or sexuality, but instead offers an intense and gripping snapshot into the psychology of competition and stresses of rivalry.
Part of the film's cleverness stems from its suggestion that Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) have more in common than meets the eye and are practically the same underneath it all. On the surface, Borg is calm and collected, robotic in emotion; whereas, McEnroe is volatile and confrontational, always wearing his emotions in play sight. However, after deep diving into each player, we see the similarities shared by Borg and McEnroe and begin to understand why they carry themselves the way they do. The genius is that it shows the humanity in the emotionless Borg, and the calm behind McEnroe's storm with relative ease and relentless pace.
In addition to the writing, the performances are part of its shining qualities. Shia LaBeouf is absolutely explosive and burns up the screen whenever he's present. It's the comeback role he needed, and it marks his most memorable performance since 2014's Fury. The only crime the film commits is that LaBeouf's McEnroe doesn't have enough screen time, playing second fiddle to Gudnason's Borg, who is more psychologically complicated but not nearly as intriguing as McEnroe. Nonetheless, Sverrir Gudnason is quietly effective, and this film should earn him a notable name in the U.S. Also, Stellen Skarsgård is excellent in a meaty supporting role as Borg’s tennis coach Lennart Bergelin, which marks his first role in a Swedish film since 2014’s In Order of Disappearance.
Borg vs. McEnroe may lack the artful stylization that makes Battle of the Sexes pop, but it more than makes up for any waning visual flair with its faultless editing, which moves with the speed of a tennis serve. The energetic pacing is met with an equally strong flow that bounces between protagonists like a tennis ball in a match and gracefully enters and exits flashbacks without shoehorning them. The story is nicely structured and adequately sets up the emotional stakes for both players, which adds to the intensity of the final Wimbledon match because the individual pressures can be felt from both sides. Even better, regardless of if you already know the outcome of the match, the way it plays out on screen will have you hanging from your seat.
All in all, Borg vs. McEnroe makes for some rousing cinema, but isn't without its flaws. The end all be all tennis movie has yet to be made, but with each new attempt, it seems we push closer to that kinda Mecca. Until then, Borg vs. McEnroe and Battle for the Sexes are the closest to perfection and should satisfy anyone's craving, tennis fan or not.
Rating: 4 sweatbands outta 5.
What do you think? Is this one of the finest tennis films ever made? Is LaBeouf a tour de force? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!