What it's about: Björn Borg was the #1 tennis player in the world and was gunning for his 5th consecutive Wimbledon championship. Borg was a model sportsman, cool and calm under pressure, never showing any emotion that his opponent could use against him. During the 1980 Wimbledon, a new challenger emerged: a brash and loud athlete by the name of John McEnroe. They may have seemed like completely opposite men and athletes, but Borg could understand McEnroe better than anyone as a troubled and emotional teen. And Borg's serene facade was supported superstitions and routines, with his toughest challenger testing whether he could hold it together. Their rivalry would go on to define the sport over the 1980s, but their first meeting in the Wimbledon finals was legendary.
I don't know why but I expected Borg vs McEnroe to be a comedic romp. The time period, the personalities at the center, films like Battle of the Sexes and 7 Days in Hell recently showing off the funny side of the sport. As soon as I heard the somber music playing over the Blu-ray menu, however, it was clear this was a serious drama.
Despite the casting of Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe, this is predominantly Björn Borg's film. Their storylines are told concurrently, but the Swede's backstory is fully flushed out. Made by a Danish filmmaker, Janus Metz, this isn't entirely a surprise.
For as dramatic a tone, though, I'm not sure Borg vs McEnroe really justifies it. The childhood flashbacks don't really offer that much drama -- we see Borg getting tough training away from his family, on a mission to become the best in the world, while McEnroe was something of a wunderkind. As adults, they are serious men but I don't know if the film really captures them with any complexity.
In one cool touch, Björn Borg's own son plays the tennis star as a teenager.
McEnroe's antics don't come off with any humor, which is wild because you can't help but laugh at highlights of McEnroe storming around a court, cursing out unprepared officials. He's shown as a desperately sad and angry man who wants people to focus on his tennis game rather than his behavior. It doesn't at all champion him, however, which giving it a comedic tone would inevitably do.
Borg vs McEnroe is structured around their runs through the 1980 Wimbledon tournament with flashbacks to the competitors' youths and their lives away from the court. There isn't much tennis until the third act. I'd almost classify it as a dramatic biopic set around sports than a sports movie in itself.
I usually find tennis to be a pretty cinematic sport even if it isn't the most TV-friendly live. Editing is vitally important during a tennis match and the action can be displayed in many ways. In Borg vs McEnroe, a traditional camera frame from one end of the court is used with closer quick cuts of the action. Overall, it works fine, but can be a little incomprehensible at times. Like an action scene, it is often better to see the full action as much as possible. The use of overhead shots are the most cinematic and creative, the small touch of the worn grass adds is a nice visual.
Given the ultra-high stakes, the film doesn't effectively build much of a narrative over the course of the match. It is a nice recreation but any specific moment of the match isn't easy to feel within the presentation. There seem to be twists and turns but not necessarily a story.
At one pivotal point, commentators and spectators remark how much tension there is and how they can't bear to watch. During real-life sports, the emotional investments lets this happen and, arguably, cinematic presentation can enhance this. Borg vs McEnroe tries to convey this by slowing down and getting inside the heads of the athletes -- it even cross-cuts in images from the flashbacks to give a "it all led to here" feel. Overall, though, the action of the match was still a little too choppy to fully build the scene.
Borg vs McEnroe smartly defies expectations in its tone and gives a proper stage to the sport by the end. There is a lot to appreciate in the film, though I don't think it can quite reach the level of an epic character study that it wants to be.