Borg vs McEnroe – 2017

Director Janus Metz Pedersen
Screenplay by Ronnie Sandahl
Starring Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny, Robert Emms

One of my fondest early memories of tennis was watching John McEnroe take on Björn Borg in Wimbledon. Borg was a stoic tour de force and McEnroe was the guy with the wild hair and the coarse language.

“That ball was on the line!” is the phrase I will hear echo in eternity.

Then, just like that, it was over. Borg retired after the 1983 season, at age 26.

Borg vs. McEnroe gives us a view into what may have lead to the sudden decision. Picking up in the 1980 finals, Borg has won 4 in a row. He’s as good as ever to the most casual observer. A closer look reveals cracks in the façade. Borg is just about to get married, so his fiancé waits in the wings, trying to be happy as Borg acts distant, reserved and then frustrated.

Coach Bergelin (Skarsgård) also feels the turbulence. He knows his star is hitting a wall, and he’s trying to figure out what it will take to get him to move forward without having him move on without him.

On the other side of the net, John McEnroe is on the verge of busting through. Being that close, he’s tired of hearing the name of Borg, whom he idolized at one point in his development. His reputation has soured him with the stuck up British crowd, and they regularly boo him. He is brash, petulant and has the mouth of a sailor. He’s not above bending the rules or arguing every call.

Metz moves back and forth in time for both players. We get glimpses of the journey each of the rivals took to get to where they were on the eve of the 1980 tournament. Much of the emphasis is on Borg’s childhood, where we learn that before he was the stoic figure who eventually won 11 Grand Slams, he too was filled with rage.

It is made clear that his social status is an impediment. Just as he is about to lean back into hockey, he’s pulled back to Tennis by Bergelin.

McEnroe is chided for his tennis as his mother feels it takes away from his brilliant academic career. This fuels him, obviously, as LaBeouf’s fantastic performance shows.

He scrambled to be in the film when he found out the film was to be made. It’s obvious he sees a kindred spirit with the tennis great in his frustration, exuberance and ability to focus through all the chaos. It is sometimes impossible to see where the actor starts and his subject ends.

Metz understands the different manifestations of focusing through rage. He pushes Gudnason into an even more fascinating performance. His sense of isolation is exquisite. He seems like a completely decent fellow who sees the world closing in around him for better or worse.  He has no idea what he wants right now, he can barely form an idea of what he doesn’t want. He only knows the pressure.

Gudnason is taking the role of Mikael Blomkvist from the great Michael Nyqvist in the upcoming The Girl in the Spider’s Web. The world will get to see how good an actor Sweden has enjoyed for years.

This is Skarsgård’s best acting in years. The juxtaposition we see in the different versions of Borg and Bergelin’s subtle maneuvers show us how he becomes the completely predictable, but seemingly unbeatable machine as he is at the present.

“Everything I have ever done has lead up to this moment.”

He knows his student is better than he ever could have been. He is driven to win like no one else. He also knows it could be over the moment the winning stops.

The film only loses momentum with the final tennis match. There are some great visuals presented, like when Borg’s serve becomes an overhead shot that merges into the serve of McEnroe. In all, almost every tennis volley looks the same. The iconic 4th set is tense, but could have been made more so with a bit more experience presenting tennis cinematically. It’s a small complaint, though. Everything leading up to this is powerful.

McEnroe is the visual representation of Borg’s internal struggles. As wild as he is, he looks to become the ironic end to Borg’s controlled, furious engine. Metz takes his time to present this convergence in a slow boil.

Borg vs McEnroe is beautiful because of this symmetry. The inverse image that is the duo of competitors gives us an idea of the power of the competition. There have been other great rivalries, but none ever captured their moment quite as well as these two.

(**** out of *****)

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