Even tennis was better in the eighties, but as was often the case, we just didn’t appreciate it at the time. Frankly, many sports fans were rather embarrassed by John McEnroe’s slightly argumentative demeanor on the court, but once he resigned from the tour, everyone started to miss his passion for the game. In contrast, Bjorn Borg was the perfect model of a gentleman tennis champion, but he did not have a catch-phrase, so it is harder to remember him. Fortunately, we can now relive their defining meeting at the 1980 Wimbledon finals in Janus Metz’s Borg vs. McEnroe (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Borg had already won four Wimbledon titles. A record setting fifth would guarantee his place in tennis Valhalla, but that also raised the media’s expectations to a fever pitch. McEnroe was the second-ranked player behind Borg and widely acknowledged as the only real threat to five-peat. However, he was also known for expressing his disappoint from time to time when a line judge called a ball in a manner McEnroe disagreed with. The other players also thought he was a jerk. As a result, just about everyone in the stadium was rooting against McEnroe, except his father.
In some ways, Metz and screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl cast Borg and McEnroe as a perfectly matched pair of personality hang-ups, with the sullen and neurotic Borg on one side of the net and the obnoxious and immature McEnroe on the other. Yet, they still manage to make the film highly compelling and consistently fun. Although it is not as sly and subversive as I,Tonya, B vs. M still bears many similarities in the way it seamlessly recreates an era and then forces viewers to re-examine our assumptions and biases from those times. One thing comes through clearly, McEnroe might have been many things, but he cared about the game and always gave it his all.
There is no question Sverrir Gudnason is a spooky dead-ringer for Borg, but he is such an angsty cold fish, his long-suffering coach Lennart Bergelin becomes our primary POV figure in the Team Borg scenes. Not surprisingly, the eternally reliable Stellan Skarsgård becomes the film’s rock of dignity as Bergelin. However, the real surprise is how far Shia LaBeouf finally comes into his own as McEnroe. Although there is not a lot of natural resemblance between the actor and the mercurial athlete, LaBeouf so completely nails the mannerisms and persona, he just starts to look like McEnroe in our mind’s eye.
Metz also deserves credit for maintaining the suspense and drama of their 1980 finals match-up. Obviously, it had to be a barnburner, or nobody would have bothered making this movie (just like there will never be a film about the Yankees 4-0 victory over the Padres in the 1998 World Series, even though it was a lot of fun to watch at the time). Yet, Metz really stages it with cinematic flair.