Borg vs. McEnroe

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Borg vs. McEnroe

Runtime 100 minutes
R

There are a few good things and a myriad of not so good things about this movie. For one, it is an apt subject for a sports movie, because the short-lived rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe (it only lasted three years, 1978-81, splitting 14 matches 7-7 before Bjorn bailed) ranks with Yankees–Dodgers, Celtics-Lakers, Notre Dame-USC and only a few others in the annals of sports. The entire film is about the two characters and tennis. There is no nonsense like romance thrown into it.

Directed by Janus Metz from a script by Ronnie Sandahl, this predominately Swedish film tries to construct the personalities and characters of Borg and McEnroe in telling the story of their rivalry. It goes overboard exalting Borg (well-played by Sverrir Gudnason), treating him as a Jesus-like character, but does a hatchet job on McEnroe.

The film does have him uttering a lot of F-bombs and spitting on the court.

Shia LaBeouf’s one-dimensional performance totally fails to capture McEnroe’s tremendous charisma, which overshadowed his sometimes bad boy behavior on the court. Sloppy research and ignorance of the state of tennis at the time exacerbates its flaws, like the quick cuts they used in trying to re-create the 1980 Wimbledon final match. They undoubtedly did this because of the difficulty in re-creating points that have been actually played. However, unless they had some problems getting the rights to the visuals of the match from Wimbledon, it would have been so much better had they used the points actually played in the match instead of trying to re-create them. Both actors look enough like the principals that it would not have harmed the movie’s verisimilitude.

The biggest botch of the movie (and there are lots more), however, is that LaBeouf’s one-dimensional performance totally fails to capture McEnroe’s inherent charisma. John was electric on the court, and that was not because of his temper. His allure shone through his petulant actions. LaBeouf plays him as a hot-tempered jerk with absolutely no redeeming value other than talent. When McEnroe was on the court, though, his magnetism dominated the match. It was a supreme pleasure to watch him play and nobody has ever approached the near-mystical attraction McEnroe’s presence brought to a tennis match.

The film also does a very poor job of re-creating McEnroe’s memorable outbursts. Two that are completely nullified by LaBeouf’s ineptness occurred when McEnroe was protesting an out call on a ball he hit against Jimmy Connors in the 1980 semi-final, and he yelled, “chalk flew!” and followed it up with his now legendary, “You cannot be serious!” There are videos of these galore and LaBeouf doesn’t even come close to re-creating McEnroe’s legendary fury.

The film does have him uttering a lot of F-bombs and spitting on the court. I don’t remember McEnroe doing either of these, and I watched every match he played that I could in those days. The movie seemed to go out of its way to present him as even more of a bohemian than he actually was.

Almost laughable was the commentary of the broadcasters in the film. Maybe the people who broadcast the match in Sweden and England were this amateurish, but Dick Enberg and Bud Collins (one of the best sports commentators who ever lived), who called the match for NBC, never said the silly stuff these guys utter. Since Dick and Bud have both passed on, it shouldn’t have been difficult to get permission to use what they said, or to use their actual commentary; why hire actors?

I don’t have the space to list all the inaccuracies in the film. Unlike the young whippersnappers who made this film and have no personal familiarity with the Borg-McEnroe rivalry, I lived through these times and saw most of their matches. This film is a great disappointment.

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