Review: Borg McEnroe

Alfred (Red) Joseph - November 8, 2017

Borg McEnroe dramatizes the intense rivalry between two of the world’s greatest tennis players, Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and John McEnroe (Shia LaBoeuf). Opening in 2018, the film recounts the buildup to Borg and McEnroe’s first match at the 1980 Wimbledon finals, and specifically its mental toll and personal struggles on the players.      

Thanks to respectable lead performances, Borg McEnroe nail-bitingly recreates the stakes for both competitors.
      Before the 1980 Wimbledon championship, tennis experts had largely considered Borg the best player in the world. In the film, Borg is portrayed as primarily deriving his identity from his status as a tennis legend; by this point, Borg had won the previous four Wimbledon tournaments. Much of Borg’s portrayal in the film shows his insecurity with losing: his fear that if he loses to McEnroe, the public will abandon him and his accomplishments.

In turn, LaBeouf’s McEnroe hates the pressure that sports reporters, referees and antagonistic crowds all put on him. To cope with this, he throws bitter tantrums during press conferences and tennis matches, which only intensify hate and bad press for him. Moreover, the media defines him as Borg’s villainous rival, rather than covering McEnroe on his own terms. For McEnroe, defeating Borg will force the tennis world to recognize him as an individual and champion.

One of the film’s strongest aspects is how it captures the resemblance between these rivals. Screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl initially contrasts McEnroe’s feisty, public outbursts with Borg’s quiet collectedness, giving viewers the impression that Borg is completely composed. However, Borg’s cool composure disappears after the first act.

Sandahl’s flashbacks reveal that the Swedish teen tennis community ostracized Borg for his temper, a decade ago. To manage him, Borg’s coach (Stellan Skarsgård) demanded that he suppress his emotions, only releasing them with each tennis stroke. Watching Borg’s confidence slip away following this revelation is undoubtedly one of the film’s stronger points. In large part, this can be credited to how Gudnason conveys Borg’s breakdowns and anxieties through his performance.

The weakest aspects of the film are the moments when the film dives too much into drama at the expense of accuracy. Clearly, the film is a dramatization of the event, but it also presents itself as mostly true, given how extensively actual photos of Borg and McEnroe are shown in the closing credits.

At times, the film adds dramatic elements that lead viewers to question whether major plot points in the film actually happened.

For instance, the film spends several scenes detailing Borg’s relationship with Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny), his fiancée and fellow tennis player. In one of their first moments together, Borg belittles his fiancée about the pressure Wimbledon puts on him. “When’s your big match?” he barks. Borg labels his fiancée’s as a no-name tennis player; he never apologizes and the argument is never addressed. In another questionable scene, McEnroe pulls a Tonya Harding and sabotages a preliminary opponent by hiding his ankle support before their match. This distracted me, and I could not find any research to support this sabotage after the film.

There’s a slow build to the Wimbledon finals, where the protagonists finally face each other in a grueling, long championship. However, the slower pace of the match gives an added weight to the championship. Anticipation exudes from the finals, as the camera goes back and forth between both men’s perspective. In an excellent choice, the film never truly tells you which man to root for, even though we get more flashbacks with Borg than with McEnroe. Furthermore, Shia LaBeouf’s thorough performance in the finals scene shows each of McEnroe’s strategies and reactions. Though LaBeouf is known for his eccentricity and mental health issues in his public life, he does far more than reflect his public breakdowns. Through his gestures, LaBeouf shows how McEnroe also works to suppress his emotions, and somehow makes a mannerless jerk likeable.

Alfred (Red) Joseph

In addition to writing about film, Alfred “Red” Joseph enjoys writing poetry and politics. He has been writing fiction for seven years despite only recently joining the Moviegoer. Red has passions for criminal justice, boxing, and William Faulkner.