VIFF Review: ‘Borg vs. McEnroe’ is frustratingly not quite good (but Shia LaBeouf is great in it)

The rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe was one of the ages, and their match at the 1980 Wimbledon Championship is probably one of the greatest matches in the history of tennis. Borg, on track to win his fifth consecutive title had a reputation as being cool and graceful under pressure. McEnroe, the new comer at the beginning of his ascendancy had a reputation as a hot head who regularly threw tantrums on the court and argued with umpires. Even their styles of play were opposite with Borg playing from the baseline and McEnroe rushing to the net. Literally everything about this match makes it ripe for a great movie which is why it’s so frustrating that it isn’t one.

If you don’t know who won the 1980 Wimbledon title I’m not going to tell you but a big part of the problem is that I don’t really have to either because the movie will make it clear. A lot of its run time is in flashbacks to the two players childhoods but to say the balance is lopsided would be the understatement of the year. It makes sense when you consider that this is a Swedish made film about a Swedish sports hero (in Sweden it’s even just called Borg) that the film spends a lot more time with Borg. The problem is that McEnroe’s story, what little we get of it, is so much more interesting.

McEnroe grew up with parents who were never pleased with him despite excelling. He wasn’t so much unable to reign in his emotions on the court but in fact was largely unwilling because in his own words he left everything on the court, and in the course of the big match he won over tennis fans who had previously booed him at every turn. For comparison, Borg grew up with parents who were frustrated by his emotional outbursts, but then he went to the national training program and learned to control them, and then he became the best tennis player in history. I mean that’s not 100% it, but that is pretty much it.

When you finally get to the big match at the end the result is that there’s very little tension, and because the match was so long they have to montage their way through most of it. There’s an interesting turn from McEnroe in that he does reign himself in during the match, but there’s only one scene that sort of explains why he pivots that way and it’s far enough in advance and with a character we barely know so it’s not 100% clear.

Speaking of McEnroe: the one truly great thing about this movie is Shia LaBeouf. Love or hate the guy but this movie feels like perfect casting. Sure, Sverrir Gudnason is good as –and an uncanny dead ringer for– Borg, but LaBeouf brings an extra something here, and he really leaves it on the court just like McEnroe professed to. You can tell from the look in his eyes that even during one of the trademark McEnroe outbursts he’s actually at his most focussed, and you can also feel the real frustration when reporters ask him about his behaviour and not his tennis. It’s the kind of performance that I’d almost forgotten he is capable of.

I just wish it were in a better movie.