Not a Movie Review: “Borg vs. McEnroe”

“You cannot be serious! That ball was on the line!  Chalk flew up!”

Back in 2004, I used to hear John McEnroe yell that day after day after day and now, 14 years later, I can still hear it in my head on a regular basis.  I know the exact intonation, I know the hand gestures, I know the camera shots used to capture famous McEnroe Wimbledon tantrum.

Because of this, because I worked on McEnroe’s self-titled CNBC talk show from a few months before the premiere through its final episode, I am not reviewing the new movie, “Borg vs. McEnroe” from director Janus Metz and writer Ronnie Sandahl. However, it is also because I worked on the show, which lasted less than six months, that I was exceptionally excited to see the movie.  I haven’t spent time with McEnroe since the wrap party, but that hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm to learn about him in any way.

My thoughts on the film are below, and in light of the above, they should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.  There will be no star rating at the bottom of the piece and the article should in no way be taken as the gospel truth on the film.  It is simply the honest point of view of someone whose viewpoint is, potentially, skewed.

While the title of the movie may indicate that it is the story of the rivalry between Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), it is not that.  It is even difficult to argue that the movie is about their confrontation in the Wimbledon finals in 1980.  It is much more the story of Borg keeping his emotions inside.  McEnroe, with his volcanic anger, is the counterpoint to that.
To be sure, this isn’t even the tale of how Borg learned to contain his emotions, rather his coach, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), orders Borg to do it as a young man, and he does.

The movie features flashbacks to a young Borg loving tennis and being out of control, but eventually he’s told to control himself and he does.  In turn, we get the present Borg as a control freak, insisting every time that he travels to Wimbledon that he stays in the same place, rents the same car, etc.  That’s not enough for a movie, but that’s all that we’re given, and we’re given it over and over again.  We see McEnroe as well, but his only distinctive personality trait is his anger. When added to what we get of Borg, it’s still not enough.

These personality traits are organized to offer a sense of how the two men were destined to meet in the 1980 Wimbledon finals, with the movie giving us both men’s road through the tournament, but even that isn’t told particularly well.  Wikipedia tells methat the two men had 14 official matches against each other as pros, the 1980 Wimbledon finals being number eight (or half their pro matches were before this moment).  They also played eight invitational matches against each other, two of which occurred before 1980.  Three exhibitions were played in 1981.

This is important, because this is, purportedly, a movie about their rivalry and whether McEnroe would be able to unseat the impossibly great Borg from his perch atop Wimbledon. Is it not then relevant that McEnroe beat Borg on three separate occasions prior to their Wimbledon match including in the WCT Finals the previous year?  Not only that, but Borg had beaten McEnroe five times before the tournament depicted.  These men knew each other, they had personal experience of the other’s play style, but “Borg vs. McEnroe” would make you think that perhaps they didn’t.

History is, of course, fudged for the purposes of filmmaking, but this doesn’t feel like a fudge. This feels like a complete rewriting in order to serve some other purpose.

The thing is, though, there is nothing else terribly great here.  These are one dimensional characters whom we get to see play out the same set of emotions over and over again.  The one potentially interesting moment is McEnroe not erupting during the finals when it certainly looks as though he might, but the film has absolutely nothing to offer on that score.  It simply makes it a surprising incident and then pushes on with no explanation coming at any point.

“Ah,” you say, “perhaps the point is that McEnroe has been affected by meeting Borg? McEnroe, having seen the controlled Borg has decided to change.”

At this point I must remind you of what I just harped – these guys had played each other repeatedly in the past.  You can’t say McEnroe was changed when he finally met Borg if the two had met several times previously.  Why was he changed when they met this time?  That is not something “Borg vs. McEnroe” cares about.

So, my admittedly skewed take on the film is that it is overly slow, overly dull, and offers only one or two insights that it repeats for its entire run time.  It squashes history, perhaps in an attempt to make a point, perhaps simply for ease of telling the story it wants to tell, but neither the point nor the story are compelling enough to where the process can be overlooked.

That ball is not on the line, it’s way wide of the mark.


photo courtesy: Neon

Categories: Random Thoughts

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