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Movie Review: ‘Borg vs McEnroe’ Serves Up an Electrifyingly Tense Two-Biopics-in-One

CREDIT: Julie Vrabelova/Neon

Starring: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stella Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny

Director: Janus Metz Pederson

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for the F-Bombs of Athletic Frustration and Incidental Nudity

Release Date: April 13, 2018 (Limited)

A study in contrasts often makes for both thrilling athletics and fascinating cinema. Thus it makes sense that we now have a film chronicling the 1980 Wimbledon men’s final between the Swedish Björn Borg and the American John McEnroe, considered by many to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, tennis matches of all time. It is surprising, perhaps, that it has taken decades for Borg vs McEnroe to happen, though that is perhaps attributable to tennis not being as marquee as other sports. But it is also good that we have had to wait, as it has given us time to digest the moment. The end result is appropriately internationally flavored, with a Danish director, production support from multiple countries, and only about two cast members well-known in America.

As a major tennis fan, I can’t help but think about how dramatically different Borg vs McEnroe would have gone if today’s officiating technology were available. The Hawk-Eye system used at many tournaments is an exceptionally efficient method for confirming whether or not balls have landed in or out of bounds. Had it been around 40 years ago, it could have prevented McEnroe from developing his hothead reputation, much of which came from his disputes with the umpires about supposedly blown calls. He could have been vindicated, though perhaps he would have found something else to complain about. But because it all went down as it did, B v M sets up its titular rivalry in terms that could be an alternate title: “Ice-Borg vs. Superbrat.”

Instead of a traditional dramatization of a rivalry, Borg vs McEnore is really more a concurrent double biopic. The buildup over the course of the tournament to the championship match is interspersed with flashbacks that paint both competitors as outsiders fighting their way into a game that has historically been elitist and dismissive of outsiders. Borg (who displays a temper on par with McEnroe’s in his teenage years) is treated with insults by the sport’s upper crust; though he is embraced by fans after winning the four prior Wimbledons in a row, he still maintains a resolve of doing things his own way. McEnroe is the upstart attempting to break through, showing little concern for decorum at the tournament where it is valued more than anywhere else, and he is met with the boos to match his impishness. As Borg, Sverrir Gudnason is not asked to do much besides remain still and calm outside of the tennis scenes, but there is a world of action taking place within his eyes. Shia LaBeouf does not try to mimic McEnroe’s voice, but he does deploy his similar propensity for asshole outbursts.

B v M’s filmmaking techniques are unique among most sports biopics, and are practically avant-garde when compared to typical live televised athletics. Rarely does the camera focus merely on the ball landing on the court, one of the most essential aspects of the game, instead criss-crossing between the reactions of the two players as well as key figures in the stands. The editing is often frenetic, suggesting the whirlwind of emotions and pressure Borg and McEnroe are digesting throughout. The journey ends on a note of profound respect, their twinned stories appropriately subsumed within each other, leading into the expected epilogue that hits harder and deeper than most.

Borg vs McEnroe is Recommended If You Like: The filmmaking of Triumph of the Will, Rivalry Friendships

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Epic Tiebreaks

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