Borg vs. McEnroe: Resistance is Futile

Movie Review: Borg vs. McEnroe

“The greatest tennis match of all time” serves as the final destination for Janus Metz’s crafty biopic about polar opposites Björn Borg and John McEnroe, but getting there is half the fun thanks to a sweaty workout from Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason.

Borg vs. McEnroe

4/5

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Sverrir Gudnason, Stellan Skarsgard, Tuva Novotny

Directed by: Janus Metz

Running time: 1 hr 47 mins

Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

The dramatic climax arrives on the grass of the 1980 Wimbledon final. Defending champion Björn Borg faces off against American “superbrat” John McEnroe in what would immediately be called “the greatest tennis match of all time.”

Hopefully, you’ve forgotten who won. A bad memory will make Janus Metz’s fictional recreation of the event that much more suspenseful in the same way Apollo 13 turned into a nail-biter even though its ending is historical document. Not that it really matters. If the movie is good, we’re sucked into the vacuum of suspended disbelief. We detach from the gravity of fact because we care more about character than encyclopedic accuracy.

It’s a crucial piece of the biopic puzzle, and it often causes consternation among the sticklers and those seeking journalistic scruples in dramatic forms. But documentary and drama serve two different masters. One honours the truth of information, the other is dedicated to the truth of character.

Fortunately for director Janus Metz, most of what screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl renders is drawn straight from an exhaustive archive of material that includes everything from television footage and decades of news clippings to multiple biographies. McEnroe’s personal memoir, But Seriously, was published last July, while the film was no doubt in post, but its oddly haunted tone only affirms what Sandahl wrote into the script.

Borg vs. McEnroe is built around the defining 1980 event, but it winds time all the way back to the beginning, to show us how these two titanic forces of tennis were destined to confront each other. Not only were they prodigious athletes, they were polar opposites, ensuring fate would work its alchemy and deliver a bang.

They were even billed as “fire and ice” when they took to the court, with McEnroe earning a chorus of boos from the pro-Borg crowd. But how did each man turn out the way he did?

Casting Borg’s own son, Leo, as the young Björn hitting balls against the garage wall, and Jackson Gann as little Johnny, the never-good-enough son of a Type-A dad, Metz gets straight to the inner core driving each player.

Both were desperate for approval and found a lot of that need quenched by athletic success. Both were somewhat haunted. But their demons are different, and in using those differences as interwoven strings of gut reactions, Metz gives leads Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason the racquet tension they need to keep the ball spinning.

Casting Borg’s own son, Leo, as the young Björn hitting balls against the garage wall, and Jackson Gann as little Johnny, the never-good-enough son of a Type-A dad, Metz gets straight to the inner core driving each player.

Intercutting the two backstories until the eventual face-to-face, the rally begins slowly. Metz serves up contrasting moods. The sullen Swedish landscape and covered tennis bubbles silently scream insular, while primary colours and an embrace of plastics speak for America. The two styles meet on the court, and in the period ‘70s production design that gives everything an ochre glow.

The Swedish side always feels a little more authentic, perhaps because the production team is Swedish, but more likely it’s because Gudnason, with his long blonde hair and chiselled Nordic features, is a dead-ringer for the young Borg.

As a result, it feels like Metz has pulled back the curtain on one of the most elusive sport icons in history. Borg had the world at his feet because of his incredible skill, but also because of his Sphinx-like persona. And in a world that was fast becoming obsessed with tennis and the lives of the rich and famous, Borg’s need to be alone made his celebrity even more alluring.

LaBeouf doesn’t look anything like McEnroe, outside of the generous curls, but the actor does get the attitude without doing an impression. He finds the boyish insecurity behind the forced swagger and blistering verbal tirades. He also finds more subtle strands. He lets us feel McEnroe wrestling with his desired version of manhood — unsure of which road to take, and thus forever doomed to walk around in maddening circles.

The two men embody the entire juxtaposition of character, so by the time they hit the turf in the final act, we care about both of them so much, we don’t want anyone to lose. History may have already written the ending, but for the duration of this carefully crafted examination of the masculine psyche, we’re giddy just watching the game.

Borg vs. McEnroe opens in select markets April 13th. Check out what The Ex-Press’s Jay Stone had to say about the movie when it kicked off the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, April 10, 2018

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Review: Borg vs. McEnroe

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“The greatest tennis match of all time” serves as the final destination for Janus Metz’s crafty biopic about polar opposites Björn Borg and John McEnroe, but getting there is half the fun thanks to a sweaty workout from Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason. -- Katherine Monk

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