It was “the IceBorg versus the SuperBrat,” in the eyes of the world: the 1980 Wimbledon final pitting Björn Borg, a four-time champion who never lost his cool in a game, against John McEnroe, who seemingly couldn’t keep his cool in a walk-in freezer with Isaac Hayes on his headphones. Janus Metz’s Borg/McEnroe paints a very different picture, diving into both men’s psyches to find them all but identical, differing only in their outward manifestations of relentless pressure. An acting-forward sports film capable of engaging viewers who don’t know their 30-loves from their birdies or hat tricks, it has mainstream theatrical appeal, though it may draw more attention on pay cable.
Though it never justifies the overblown Andre Agassi quote used as its preface (“Every match is a life in miniature”), the picture certainly shows how a single match can be made to feel like the world depends on it. Borg (Sverrir Gudnason), beloved of the public and stalked by Beatlemania-grade female fans, might reasonably rest on his laurels after four Wimbledon titles. But how could he step away and let that tournament be won by an athlete disrespected even in his home country? In the long buildup to the eponymous event, we watch McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) attempt to survive press appearances without blowing up: He takes a ribbing from a talk-show host about his foul-mouthed midgame outbursts, and is almost sheepish, until the host won’t stop asking what he thinks about Borg. Over in Monaco, the Swede politely thanks his well-wishers but, upon seeing a newspaper with McEnroe on the front page, quietly hides it under boxes.
The psychology of overachieving takes center stage in a sensitive double portrait.
Metz and screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl (who together made a TV doc about this bout in 1996) will devote time to each man’s childhood, but at first seem mostly concerned with Borg’s — surely because what we learn there so upends our understanding of him. Full of obvious talent as a young boy, he was every bit as emotionally demonstrative as McEnroe when he did poorly on the court. He was such a poor sport, in fact, that the Scandinavian heads of his tennis program kicked him out, hinting to his mother that the family wasn’t the sort of folk who made good tennis players. (Young Björn is played first by Leo Borg, the star’s spitting-image real-life son, then by Marcus Mossberg, both offering enough fire that you’d never predict the adult’s restraint.)
But around the time of his Davis Cup debut at age 15, Borg got an ultimatum from coach Lennart Bergelin (a worried-looking Stellan Skarsgard): Keep it all inside. Focus all your fear and frustration on getting one point at a time.
That’s not a lesson anyone ever taught McEnroe, who here grows up with almost cartoonishly demanding parents. When the boy (Jackson Gann) tells his mother he got a 96 on a test, the class’s top score, she asks what happened to the other four points, and notes that a class of 30 students isn’t much of a population to beat. Dad (Ian Blackman) seemingly maintains a more constant presence in his son’s life — first making the kid do human-calculator party tricks at dinners, then following the young man around to matches and appearances, casting a stern eye on anything that looks like failure.
LaBeouf and Gudnason give performances as good as you could want here, bringing unexpected shades to the well known characters. Viewers who were repelled by McEnroe’s antics in their day would be hard pressed not to sympathize with him here (insert your own observations about the relevance of LaBeouf’s first-hand experience with public scorn); and as Borg, Gudnason is a time-bomb of self doubt hidden under golden tresses and a fur coat. Rarely has someone seemed to enjoy the high life so little.
Following his two stars into so many private moments, Metz has little attention to give the other people onscreen. All the supporting characters are thin, though Tuva Novotny, as Borg’s fiancée Mariana Simionescu, works hard to be a beacon of emotional stability.
The match itself, widely considered one of the greatest moments in sports, begins around the 70-minute mark, and just about gets its due. Using few shots that view both players on the court at once, Metz weaves close-ups and work by body-double athletes into a convincing epic. And even if the script’s one obvious concession to tennis newbies in the audience doesn’t go quite far enough in establishing what “tiebreaker” means in this context, few things could be clearer than the argument that, on July 5, 1980, few athletes could have been more equally matched than Björn Borg and John McEnroe.
Production company: SF Studios
Cast: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard, Tuva Novotny, Ian Blackman
Director: Janus Metz
Screenwriter: Ronnie Sandahl
Producers: Jon Nohrstedt, Fredrik Wikstrom Nicastro
Executive producers: Tim King
Director of photography: Niels Thastum
Production designer: Lina Nordqvist
Costume designer: Kicki Ilander
Editors: Per Sandholdt, Per K. Kirkegaard
Composers: Jonas Struck, Vladislav Delay, Jon Ekstrand, Carl-Johan Sevedag
Casting directors: Jessie Frost, Jina Jay, Johannes Persson