In 1980, the international sports world focused its attention on the well-manicured tennis courts of Wimbledon in London, England. The reason for that attention was not the famous professional tennis challenge but just two of its players: “Borg vs McEnroe.”
Not being a tennis fan, ever, I vaguely remember the TV coverage of Wimbledon in 1980 and media hype over the Ice Man versus Bad Boy match of the century. I honestly do not remember who won and I was careful not to look up anything about “Borg versus McEnroe.” I am glad I restrained myself.
Danish director Janus Metz made his start, way back in 1996, directing a segment on the television reality show (back when reality TV shows actually reflected reality), “Clash of the Titans: Borg v McEnroe.” The documentary filmmaker takes the subjects of his first work and turns it into his debut feature film.
Metz’s documentary filmmaking experience translates into a bio-film that has the look and feel that you are watching something that really happened. Part of this believability is due to the excellent casting of the titular characters. Sverrir Gudnason, as Bjorn Borg, gives a solid interpretation of the tennis champion (five time winner at Wimbledon), especially as I remember Borg, his persona and demeanor on the TV screen. The film, and Gudnason’s portrayal, fleshes out Borg to be much more complex a man than his Ice Man reputation.
Shia LaBeouf, as John Patrick McEnroe, is just about perfect as the volatile American tennis champ. LaBeouf has his own long-time rep as a media bad boy, so casting him as the opinionated, tantrum-prone prima donna of the tennis courts is, to me, a no-brainer. Both actors embrace their characters and both give full depth to their roles.
The documentary feel of “Borg versus McEnroe” – and forgetting who actually won the Big Match – makes it exciting to watch. The tennis action is first-rate and I was engaged in the drama from start to finish. The script, by Ronnie Sandahl, also gives the characters’ back stories and the reasons for how and why the two young men, very alike when younger, become the icons they are, at least in the tennis world. I give it a B.
Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) was the greatest tennis player in the world, looking to win his fifth Wimbledon in 1980. But there was an American upstart, a man whose contentious behavior fascinated the Swede. They would end up battling it out in what has been called the greatest Wimbledon final in the history of the sport in "Borg vs. McEnroe."
With a script by Ronnie Sandahl, Danish documentarian Janus Metz ("Armadillo") jumps about time to illustrate how much the man known for keeping his cool and the man known for losing his were really alike. It's an interesting premise and it works, outside influences sending one down one path while the other learns restraint by studying his rival. Don't expect an equally weighted film as Metz concentrates far more on Borg, even as we get a better psychological grasp of McEnroe. Both Gudnason and LaBeouf are compelling, but despite a gripping finale and coda, when all is said and done we're left feeling there is a lot more to these men that what has been explored here.
After introducing Borg under pressure to win his fifth Wimbledon, we meet McEnroe as he's introduced by a talk show host as 'the worst representative of American values since Al Capone.' McEnroe bristles as questions focus on his rival rather than his own game. Metz then backpedals, the young Borg (played by Borg's son Leo, the role taken over by Marcus Mossber as a teenager) trying out for a prestigious tennis club, but denied for unsportsmanlike conduct. Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård) takes notice of the boy's talent, though, discovering his two-handed backhand originated in his hockey play. Lennart shepherds him into a career, pitting the fifteen year-old against the older, established Onny Parun in the Davis Cup. When Borg begins to win, Lennart throws down a gauntlet - he is never to show emotion on the court. It's taken to heart.
McEnroe's childhood is one of never living up to his parents' (Ian Blackman and Jane Perry) impossible expectations. He's lectured for attaining a class topping grade of 96%, trotted out like a show pony to impress guests with his mathematical abilities. We see this carried through to adulthood as McEnroe charts Wimbledon play on his hotel room wall. Winning is everything.
As it is for Borg, who sticks to a regimen of such superstitious ritual that he's unnerved when his hired car doesn't have the exact same interior finish as it did the last time. Borg crawls inside his own head, snapping at Lennart (he'll go as far as firing him), alienating fiancee Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny). McEnroe eats junk food and parties when he's not infuriating fellow players Peter Fleming (Scott Arthur) and Jimmy Connors (Tom Datnow) with his antics on and off the court.
The final games between the two are fascinating to watch, Borg struggling as he has throughout the entire tournament, then coming back like gangsters after McEnroe wins the first set. McEnroe denies Borg one match point after another in a seemingly unending competition. It's thrilling filmmaking, the two actors quite convincing as the 'the sledgehammer' pitted against 'the stiletto.' When the game finally concludes, Ian Blackman's facial expression goes a long way towards explaining his character's son, yet McEnroe's won the crowd by restraining his outbursts.
The film ends with McEnroe and Borg's chance meeting at the airport, each recognizing themselves in the other. Good sportsmanship is at the heart of each when confronted with real challenge.
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