Shia LaBeouf Remarkable as John McEnroe
Borg vs. McEnroe is the story of Björn Borg’s fifth-straight Wimbledon championship as told through the script of Sweden’s Ronnie Sandahl, and the vision of Danish director Janus Metz. With a European director and crew, it stands to reason then that Borg would be the focus of the feature, and he is, but for American audiences, the tale is just as much about John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), a once-in-a-lifetime figure of the tennis world whom Americans still hold close to their rebel hearts, nearly four decades after he fell to Borg in what is widely considered the greatest Men’s Wimbledon final in the history of the sport.
Borg vs. McEnroe is a character study. It follows the life of Borg during the lead-up to the 1980 Wimbledon championship match as he deals with the isolation and expectations of massive fame. Sverrir Gudnason plays the tennis legend with the calm, cool and collected demeanor Borg was famous for, all the while giving hints of deep-seeded, unresolved issues. He is a cauldron of anxiety and fussiness leading up to the final, and he takes it out on those around him behind closed doors.
Borg and McEnroe, despite their reputations, had much in common, namely, overbearing parents that left both riddled as children with unrealistic expectations and bubbling anger issues. While McEnroe was terrible at hiding his emotions on-court, Borg’s emotions were buried deep within, trained away by Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), who brought Borg onto Sweden’s Davis Cup team as a child.
The film uses flashback heavily to show the various stages of both players’ upbringings to mixed results. While the study of McEnroe is effective with only a few scenes, the depths with which we plunge into Borg’s past leaves us feeling strangely unsatisfied. We understand that he has anger issues, but we never really know where they come from, as his on-court outbursts as a child are explained away by the desire to be the best in the world. If that is truly the case, then why did Borg retire at 26? Did he really love tennis? We are told he does, but shown something else – we never see Borg enjoy the game, instead, it is a constant struggle and source of anxiety.
Meanwhile, we know McEnroe loves the game. His mother is far more interested in his academic performance than his tennis plans but he perseveres anyway, standing in front of a mirror as a child and envisioning himself on top of the tennis world one day, before taking to the court for a rigorous training session.
LaBeouf is one my very favorite actors because he is so wildly eccentric. Hollywood’s greatest are very strange people. Artists are very strange people. They live very emotional existences, and we’ve seen very public instances of LaBeouf emoting in some very passionate ways. In this film, he absolutely shines. Taking on the look, feel, and emotion of John McEnroe, and I mean down to the very stitching of his striped tube socks, LaBeouf absolutely destroys this performance. Perhaps it’s because LaBeouf is no stranger to emotion, nor to public embarrassment, he brings life to the character that no other actor could. There’s something very deeply sullen behind LaBeouf’s eyes that makes him endlessly believable as a character struggling with inner-demons. McEnroe lived well before it became acceptable to talk about mental illness, but it’s clear that the man was dealing with brain chemistry uncommonly found among those who frequent tennis courts. LaBeouf captures the ups and downs of McEnroe’s emotional roller-coaster, and delivers the emotional heft the role deserves. In one particularly affecting scene, fellow American Peter Fleming (Scott Arthur) confronts McEnroe in the locker room after losing to him. Normally friends, McEnroe refused to talk to Fleming leading up to their match and Fleming felt it threw him off his game. In confronting McEnroe after the match, Fleming explains that he believes McEnroe will win Wimbledon one day, but warns that no one will remember him because no one likes him, “You know, in 20 years, the only thing people are going to say is, ‘Hey, what was the name of that crazy guy that always yelled at the umpire?’” Throughout the lecture, Metz keeps his camera wisely focused on LaBeouf, who remains silent, yet speaks volumes in response. It’s a great scene.
The final match takes up a large portion of the third act, as it should have – the match featured eight separate match-points for Borg, and 34-game tiebreaker that made it 2-2 heading into the epic, back-and-forth fifth set in which Borg finally captured the championship. But before the match, Metz places us inside the waiting room, where McEnroe and Borg sit side-by-side in silence, waiting for the match to begin. Behind them, a quote shines in golden letters on the wall: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat these two imposters just the same.” The message is clearly pointed at McEnroe, whose character study becomes a question of whether he can finally act like a gentleman on the court. When all is said and done, we’ve taken a journey with McEnroe emotionally, and we understand him better. If he hasn’t changed entirely, at least he has become cognizant to his own shortcomings. The change in Borg is less obvious, but is still there, buried in the stoic, icy façade of Gudnason.
It’s not a perfect film, but it is really entertaining, and offers a hopeful ending, especially the post-credits segment that reveals McEnroe and Borg went on to become extremely close friends. And why not? They are practically the same person, just raised in entirely different environments. PerhapsBorg vs. McEnroe is a testament to Nurture in the vs. Nature argument – the Swede buries his emotions under a slab of ice, while the New Yorker shouts his emotions violently to anyone within earshot.