After walking out of ‘Borg McEnroe’, I could not stop thinking about its similarities to ‘Rush’, Ron Howard’s 2013 biopic about the rivalry between F1 champions James Hunt and Nikki Lauda. ‘Borg McEnroe’ shares an interest in the tension between sporting giants, though its subjects are tennis greats Björn Borg and John McEnroe. Like ‘Rush’, it tells a true story that is arguably more satisfying than any fiction could ever be, both because the results of its titular match-up are so agreeable and because the filmmakers expertly steer your desires into alignment with the outcome realised. Finally, they’re both excellent movies; ‘Borg McEnroe’ succeeds as a character study, as entertainment, and as a somewhat experimental, artistic investigation into the demands that being the best places upon people.
The film starts with the pairBor McEn facing off in the 1980 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final, with Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) the defending, four-time consecutive champion and McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) the younger, fiery upstart. I must admit that, as this was well before my time, plus my interest in tennis would be generously described as “seasonal”, I had no clue what the outcome of the match was. While my ignorance certainly added an additional layer of suspense to my experience of the film, Ronnie Sandahl’s screenplay does plenty of work elsewhere to develop the characters beyond their often black-and-white portrayals in popular culture.
Borg, a player that attained greatness young but retired in his mid-20s, is remembered as an emotionless machine, nicknamed “Ice-Borg” by the press. In flashbacks, we are introduced to younger Björns (played by Björn’s real son, Leo Borg, and Markus Mossberg), who struggled against the class divide that dominated tennis, a “gentlemen’s sport”, at the time, as well as his own forceful emotions, which saw him suspended from clubs in his youth. His potential is noticed by Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård), Sweden’s Davis Cup captain and former professional player who became Borg’s coach. Having identified a young Björn’s proclivity for losing his cool during matches, Bergelin intentionally drives him past his breaking point during a training session before his Davis Cup debut. In the aftermath of their ensuing bust-up, Bergelin makes Björn promise to never show a single emotion on the court again, which turned him into the coolly robotic player remembered on the international circuit. Skarsgård musters a believable tension between the man that arguably terrorised Borg into locking away his emotions and the caring mentor that he becomes, constantly available to ensure that Björn’s exacting, borderline OCD demands are met. Bergelin and Björn’s fiancé, Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny, who bears more than a passing resemblance to her fellow countryman Noomi Rapace), appear to be the last line of defence against Björn’s eruption.
This provides a dramatically fertile contrast with McEnroe, whose public image was one tainted by his open volatility on and off the court, a Nick Kyrgios type in an era that could never have imagined the ‘bad boy’ images of some of today’s household names. He has a strange relationship with his father, John McEnroe, Sr. (Ian Blackman), which serves as a similar bond to that shared by Borg and Bergelin. Shia LaBeouf may not closely resemble the young John McEnroe (although the addition of a buoyant, curly wig does help bridge the gap), but he is the perfect choice for John. Both men share a simmering anger, present in much of LaBeouf’s recent work both in film and in the arts, as well as public misconceptions of the men that they are at their cores. Casting a relative unknown as Borg was also a good choice, and I completely bought Sverrir Gudnason in the role. He’s able to convey Björn’s hidden rage, the “volcano” that bubbles beneath his cool but fragile exterior, but also makes tender moments with Bergelin and Mariana feel like he’s found his oasis. The filmmakers convey that, despite their portrayal as opposites, both men were ultimately very similar, though their approaches to handling the mental gymnastics required to perform at the top level were very different.
McEnroe’s jagged edges make for a terrific contrast with Borg’s emotionlessness, and one that the media certainly loved to highlight at the time, pitting them against one another in press conferences and headlines ad nauseum. Their manufactured rivalry is so intense that the film had me convinced that, if it weren’t based in truth and such an event would likely have lodged itself firmly in popular culture, one man could have physically lashed out and attacked the other during their epic, five-set final. I won’t spoil the result for the tennis naïve among us, but I found it intensely moving and gratifying, with both men taking a victory of some sorts from the match.
The film looks utterly gorgeous throughout, from the way is marvels at the bewitching geometry of the tennis court to its use of close, handheld camerawork to get into the space of the characters. It was shot digitally, although processes in post have clearly been used to convincingly alter its look to mimic that of film, including adding a slight grain. The 70s and 80s costuming and design are also solid, as is the music, which comes into its own when it bears the weight of the emotional final act.
As mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t consider myself a tennis nut; the last game that I watched start to finish (and, I must admit, thoroughly enjoyed, although how could one not?) was the Federer vs Nadal final at the Australian Open in January. This film, like most great films that tackled a certain interest, made me care deeply about tennis for its runtime. ‘Borg McEnroe’ tells a wonderful true story, and it tells it wonderfully.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting