The story of the 1980 tennis rivalry between the placid Björn Borg and the volatile John McEnroe.The story of the 1980 tennis rivalry between the placid Björn Borg and the volatile John McEnroe.The story of the 1980 tennis rivalry between the placid Björn Borg and the volatile John McEnroe.
As a strange pre-note: I watched Borg vs McEnroe in a completely empty theatre. Clearly, this movie is not getting the attention it deserves. I think it definitely affected my viewing experience; I was able to completely shut off and see it my own way. Which is good, as this film has a real psychological edge.
In short, it was an excellent movie. Surprisingly so, in fact. It got to the point where I forgot I was watching a film and really seemed to be inside the heads of the two leads, right there with them, through every match, every up, every down, every argument, every triumph. This is quite the achievement for a film based in historical fact that can't take too many liberties with the story.
Within the first couple of scenes, I could tell this was going to be my kind of movie: a real character study. We see a day in the life of global heart-throb mega-star Bjorn Borg, who is beginning to tire of the trappings of fame. I noticed the filmmaking technique of filming Borg in tight, claustrophobic interiors with shadowy men in suits hanging around in the background. It suggests that his life is beyond his control, is being lived for him, and maybe he wants out ... but doesn't know how to do that. All he knows is tennis, and winning.
Enter the young and fiery John McEnroe, who is a major blip on Bjorn 'Ice'-Borg's radar. If Borg was the ABBA of tennis, McEnroe was the Sex Pistols. Known for ranting at umpires and crowds, he had whipped London's easily baited tabloid newspapers into a frenzy, they could smell blood in the water, and as McEnroe battled his way into the final with a combination of luck, talent and verve, a fairytale match (and perhaps a major upset) was being set up.
Borg is unquestionably the main character of this film. I think we get about a 70:30 time share between the title characters. This is something of a shame, as I thought that McEnroe was perhaps the more interesting character. How does a New York wiseguy from a good family and lots of opportunities end up pushing himself into becoming a tennis world No. 1? The movie never really tries to answer this question. It focuses much more on Bjorg's backstory as a trouble kid who was recruited - some might say brainwashed - into channelling all his anger into his tennis. In perhaps the movie's best scene, McEnroe makes the link between them clear, and spots that Bjorg may seem like an iceberg but really he's a volcano waiting to go off.
Shia LeBeouf was an inspired choice to play McEnroe. LeBeouf has always faced fierce criticism of his acting, his suitability for the kind of roles he wins, and has run the tabloid gamut lately with a string of bizarre stories about his life and behaviour. In scenes where McEnroe rants at the press, you feel LeBeouf is really getting something off his chest here. Also excellent is Stellan Skarsgard, who plays a tennis coach with just the right amount of highly questionable morality in pushing youngsters as hard as it takes to produce a champion.
My one criticism of the film was the cheesy title cards, which spell out explicitly what's supposed to be happening in the movie with things like "The rivalry would affect the players for the rest of their lives." Show, don't tell, is the first rule of filmmaking. However, the movie's technical excellence - the tennis sequences were utterly spellbinding - and surprising emotional heft and depth make this a wholehearted "Yes - see it" recommendation from me.
- Oct 8, 2017