Wimbledon, 1980. John McEnroe (Shia LeBeouf) has reached the final of the men’s singles, despite his short temper with umpires and growing public unpopularity. Facing off against McEnroe is the seemingly unstoppable Björn Borg (an uncanny Sverrir Gudnason).
Director Janus Metz’s Borg vs McEnroe may well be inspired by the real tennis rivalry, but those all-important words ‘inspired by’ allows the events to service the story – not the other way around. Tennis on screen is famously dull, but this is one of the most cinematic films of the year, with an especially gorgeously composed aerial shot of the court repeated in key moments of the film. The structure, too, is effective in crafting drama. Set in the days running up to the Wimbledon match, their journeys are told in flashback, juxtaposing the players’ fire and ice public personas with their shared drive to win.
Metz’s film refuses to fall back on a hero/villain template, particularly when depicting perennial tantrum-thrower McEnroe. Instead, as the film’s title implies, Borg vs McEnroe explores the duality between the players, asking what common quality drives them. Polar opposites in the public eye, the film suggests that the containment of their shared rage is all that divides them, depicting the young Borg as the adolescent mirror to the adult McEnroe. In contrast, the young American is a gifted, vulnerable youngster, driven to intensity by egotistical parents insisting on nothing less than perfection.
Less artfully, declarative dialogue underlines what has already been shown: “People say he’s unfocused, but he’s the opposite”, “Borg’s like a volcano, ready to explode”. One wonders if more time with spent with the young McEnroe might have balanced out the dichotomy a little more, as McEnroe is effectively given second billing to the Swede. But though Gudnason may have the lion’s share of screentime, this is LaBeouf’s picture, game set and match.
It goes without saying that the former Transformers star is perfectly cast here, building on his superb work in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey to cement his star as a ‘serious actor’. Channelling his own public persona as a wellspring of rage, LaBeouf’s McEnroe is one part courtside temper tantrums to two parts damaged little boy, a knot of insecurity, anger and entitlement. He remains unlikeable but is never unrelatable, and a flashback sequence where he is made to perform mental arithmetic tricks in front his parents’ friends contextualises his sense of unfairness on the courtside. This may well be pure fabrication, but it’s powerful storytelling nonetheless.
Lacking the heart of John G. Avildsen’s Rocky, the brutality of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and the thematic resonance of Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire, this effort will not be remembered as one of the great sports films. But with LaBeouf giving the performance of his career and a well-told story that hits all the right beats, Borg vs McEnroe may just well go down as a great tennis film.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell