Shia LaBeouf’s reputation serves him well in “Borg/McEnroe.” The story of one of the all-time great sports rivalries, this film from Swedish director Janus Metz turns the actor’s hotheaded persona into a terrific performance as John McEnroe, the “superbrat” of tennis.
A non-traditional sports movie, “Borg/McEnroe “ ends with the Wimbledon matches in the 1980 final but spends the vast amount of its running time as a behind-the-scenes character study of polar opposites. On the court their games were as much psychological as they were physical, and this movie delves into the backstories that fed their individual styles.
We learn of McEnroe father’s unrelenting push for perfection. Whether it was doing complicated math tricks for dad’s friends or on the court, young McEnroe developed a perfectionist streak that lead to extreme discipline and a hair trigger temper when his lofty standards weren’t met.
In public life Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) was nicknamed the Iceborg, a play on his chilly demeanour but flashbacks to his early life with coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård) reveal a similar upbringing to McEnroe. The difference between the two competitors came with Borg’s ability to suppress his anger, unlike the combustible McEnroe, who became famous for his on-court outbursts. “They say Borg is an iceberg, keeping it all in,” says one commentator, “until he becomes a volcano.”
The film digs deep, accentuating the similarities between the two players, not their differences. It’s an unusual take for a sports film. Typically sporting films play up the differences between competitors to amp up the conflict but this isn’t a standard sports story. It’s more an existential drama concerned with the why’s of their personalities not the how’s of their game. Many people will know how this story ends—and no, it doesn’t rewriter tennis history—so director Metz wisely focuses on the journey, not the destination.
Perhaps of his own history of public behaviour LaBeouf brings fire and empathy to his portrayal of McEnroe. A performance that could easily have drifted into caricature instead offers a nuanced look at the demons that fuelled the champion’s antics.
Gudnason is a dead ringer for Borg and does a nice job of hinting at the self-doubt that was always just under his icy exterior.
“Borg/McEnroe” gives insight into the lives of these two gold star athletes, revealing the men behind the game.