With one look at the Borg vs McEnroe poster, I seemingly knew what to expect: Shia LaBeouf acting like a badass (again). Imagine George Carlin’s scowl and Clint Eastwood’s skeptical eyes — that’s me, posturing like a cinephile snob, attempting to process Mr. LaBeouf’s new role as John McEnroe. And who is this other character, Sverrir Gudnason, as Björn Borg? Hmm… maybe Timothée Chalamet should’ve been cast in both roles. But after watching Janus Metz’ rather moving tennis film, I now realize that my initial thoughts emerged from my inner troll zone. Not only is Borg vs McEnroe an effective character study, it’s one of the better sports films of recent years that didn’t premiere on ESPN or HBO.
Don’t get me wrong, Borg vs McEnroe will not teach youngsters how to charge the net or deliver a killer backhand like so much Roger Federer. In fact, the non-exploration of McEnroe and Borg’s on-court techniques weakens the film overall. But just like Raging Bull isn’t only about boxing, Borg vs. McEnroe doesn’t merely go through contextual routines to hype the 1980 Wimbledon Championships and the now famous match between a Swedish sports icon and an American loudmouth. Instead, director Metz and screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl examine the athletes’ mental game, along with the pros and cons of how their learned mind control strategies affect their lives off the court. Spoiler: these guys are hard to handle.
Through flashback sequences, the film establishes how Borg transformed from a “not right in the head” adolescent into a tennis machine, aided by his coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård). In contrast, McEnroe experiences a more stable upbringing but has the same competitive drive. The Swede locks out negative thoughts and channels his fury through a tennis racket, while the American uses his personality and social skills to manipulate his opponents. Of course, McEnroe’s on-court behavior overshadows his mental toughness, which doesn’t go unnoticed by his international rival, Borg. Narratively, Metz makes each expositional sequence count. Whereas many directors use montages to establish a rivalry (look how hard they’re working, and look how good they are!), Metz focuses on how each man processes external noise and gossip, and how that affects their on-court behavior. Most importantly, though, the film hints at the long term implications for unchecked outbursts, and the various reasons why each athlete constructs psychological walls.
Because of the tennis narrative and the celebrity factor, I anticipated mostly quick cuts, expositional fluff and clever dialogue. Yet Borg vs. McEnroe succeeds with quiet, revelatory moments, whether it’s a wide shot of Borg, deep in thought, gazing across the Ligurian Sea from his Monaco home, or McEnroe coming to grips with his personal flaws. And when the moment of truth comes, the symmetrical framing poignantly highlights the subjects’ compartmentalized thoughts and ability to mentally transform themselves. Long takes. Wide shots. Borg vs McEnroe’s most effective visuals mirror the characters’ social isolation.
As for LaBeouf, he delivers a vulnerable performance, one that becomes more impactful with each act. And I now see why this role was so important to him, as he’s able to channel his own frustrations of feeling misunderstood. Early on, there’s a fascinating meta moment as McEnroe watches himself on television, clearly embarrassed by his own behavior, thus referencing LaBeouf’s personal outbursts of recent years, whether they were spontaneous or designed specifically for a public response. Scene by scene, he embodies McEnroe’s public persona while communicating that sense of unease when one becomes too self-aware. And the same goes for Gudnason (co-star of the upcoming The Girl in the Spider’s Nest), who never seems like an actor portraying a celebrity. While his performance doesn’t have the same emotional arc as LaBeouf, he’s impeccably controlled throughout, and it’s quite eerie, at least until Borg’s shell finally cracks. And that dropping of the guard, that ability to connect with one’s best enemy, will leave a mark.
Borg vs McEnroe loses momentum during its tennis sequences, but that’s just a minor complaint. Advantage LaBeouf.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and Vague Visages’ founding editor. From 2014 to 2017, he wrote over 600 video scripts for WatchMojo, and he’s the author of their first e-book, WatchMojo’s 100 Decade-Defining Movie Moments of the 1990s. From 2006 to 2012, Q.V. lived in Hollywood, California and worked closely with ABC On-Air Promotions as the production manager for LUSSIER. He now resides in sunny Fargo, North Dakota and has written for RogerEbert.com, Fandor, Screen Rant and Crooked Marquee.