The sport of tennis is inherently dramatic, at once meditative and explosive, a study in individual struggle and triumph. Personality tics and habits under extreme pressure and stress are laid bare for the whole world to inspect, with all eyes focused on the court. The rivalry of Bjvrn Borg and John McEnroe, which came to a head at the 1980 Wimbledon final, pitted perfection against passion and captivated the world. Janus Metz’s film, “Borg vs. McEnroe,” following the events leading up to the match, takes the clash of the tennis titans to operatic new heights.
The rivalry between the two players made for splashy, fun tabloid fodder, but Metz, with writer Ronnie Sandahl, has given the story an intensely dramatic, psychological treatment. The thesis of the film is that for all of the ways in which Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) were polar opposites – the methodical and controlled Swedish “IceBorg,” and the fiery, hot-tempered New Yorker “Superbrat” – they were far more alike than different.
Sandahl’s script explores the childhood circumstances that shaped the players, but dives deeply into Borg’s background as a young tennis phenom in Sweden (played by Borg’s real son, Leo, himself a tennis player, who gives a startlingly great performance in his debut role). He made waves in youth leagues with his own tantrums – highly frowned upon in this “gentleman’s sport” – but his energy and drive to win were indisputable, and soon he was plucked out of a suspension to be groomed as one of the greats by his coach, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard). As a coach, Bergelin stoked Borg’s fire, then closed down the valve, forcing the young player to channel every ounce of emotion and pain into his game. As one competitor describes it, playing against him is like being hit with a sledgehammer.
McEnroe, on the other hand, is the stiletto, laser-sharp shots masked by his outsize personality, leaving competitors slashed without even realizing what happened. His blowups garnered him the rebel reputation, so different from the icy cool Borg, but Borg sees something familiar in McEnroe. Through all the chaos, he recognizes focus.
LaBeouf is perfectly cast as the brash, trash-talking McEnroe, which is a role perfectly suited to his lovable loudmouth skillset (honed on the Disney Channel show “Even Stevens”). Although it sits right in his wheelhouse, LaBeouf makes it a thoughtful and lived-in performance, not just a caricature. Although this is a film largely about Borg, LaBeouf as McEnroe just about steals it.
But Swedish actor Gudnason maintains a firm hold on the narrative as the almost impossibly stoic Borg, gripping his lips in a tight, slight smile, fear in his eyes as he’s mobbed by adoring fans, only allowing himself to break down in private. It’s the far subtler and far more difficult performance, communicating so much with such a limited range, as Borg’s emotions are clamped down to serve his athletic performance.
Metz shoots the tennis action with an intimate immediacy that places you on the court with the greats. Their agonizingly long tiebreaker is the kind of stuff that makes one fall in love with the Shakespearean drama that is tennis. In other moments, Metz takes a bird’s eye view, widening out for overhead shots that abstract the game in graphic compositions: the white-clad figure moving within the white lines of the court, the individual in space.
The editing zips like the zinging shots the players whip back and forth, and the well-paced sports film becomes almost a psychological thriller of sorts. Will Borg ever break? Will McEnroe ever pull it together? This character study of the two men links them together in their battle, working with and against each other, and becoming forever bonded in the process. “Borg vs. McEnroe” becomes an indelible portrait of these men and their unlikely, ineffable and ultimately, deeply emotional bond.