There’s something about that nature of intense competition, especially when it’s one individual versus another that we simply can’t look away from.
While Borg vs. McEnroe does run through some fairly perfunctory storytelling beats, the intensity of the rivalry and the passion for the competition between these two unique driven athletes is fun to watch play out.
Opposites are often more alike than they ever care to admit. This is the story of the tennis rivalry between the placid Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and the volatile John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), culminating in their encounter at the 1980 Wimbledon Championships men’s final. Both men had more in common than they ever could have realized as they punished themselves and those around them to be the absolute best that they could be.
It’s admittedly not a film with a ton of narrative swagger, but Borg vs. McEnroe actually works because it really dives into the obsession of both these men and the unique ways in which they tackled it.
Director Janus Metz’s background in documentary filmmaking actually worked to his favor as he undoubtedly worked from the documentary episode series that he worked on that documented this very rivalry. The facts are lined up and with the script Ronnie Sandhal was efficient and to the point. Gone were any real episodes of exposition and character development as both of our leads get established through the sport that made them famous.
What they really do that is smart here is allow us to get inside the heads of both of these iconic competitors. While they both had very distinct public personalities that they pushed through to the masses, these elite competitors also had their demons. Both had been conditioned from an early age that failure was never an option growing up and while McEnroe lashed out at the establishment that seemed more focused on his antics and temper tantrums then they were on his ability to play tennis, while Borg internalized everything to the point that it almost ate him alive. As these two were striving for perfection, these are the costs they were paying.
Is it historically accurate? I honestly don’t know and kind of care less because this dynamic creates an emotional relationship between the two that builds to a fever pitch when they finally confront on the court that you can’t look away from. Metz stages the tennis action exceptionally well and it makes for a thrilling 3rd act to the film, even though we had to slog through the occasional uneven moment in the first 2/3rds of the film in order to finally get there.
It would be an easy mistake to make to assume that Shia LaBoeuf has the meatier role here as the flamboyant McEnroe but it is Sverrir Gudnason who later this year will be rebooting the role of Mikael Blomkvist in the upcoming; The Girl In The Spider’s Web who really gets to shine. He allows Borg who at the time was an absolute rock star in the public eye to be a fragile and insecure creature who never quite allowed his natural talent for the sport give him any real comfort. While LaBoeuf on the opposite side of the coin as McEnroe can play petulant with the best of them also comes off as an insecure wreck in the face of a sport that he feels has never truly accepted him for the talent that he is rather then the loud American side show in a sport of champions. Neither man really knew it at the time, but they both wanted to be in the other one’s shoes very desperately, but it actually makes sense that after their iconic Wimbledon match in 1980 they actually became pretty good friends.
At the end of the day, Borg vs. McEnroe is not a film about arriving at any kind of emotional or actual destination with some sort of goal in mind, but what it does do is allow us as the fans truly get an understanding that the motivations behind what drive some of these more iconic sports heroes that we all have in our various walks of life aren’t all that different than the rest of us, it’s just that they don’t know how to turn off the obsession to be elite above all else and in the fever pitch of the time when Tennis was becoming one of the most popular sports on the planet, that’s the real hook that makes it all so compelling.
Borg vs. McEnroe is open exclusively here in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox but it is also available on iTunes.
- Release Date: 4/13/2018