Borg Vs McEnroe, the latest tennis movie, poses a number of conundrums around being at the top of the game, or indeed the top of any game.
Director Metz concisely and with surgical skill dissects the persona of these two sporting greats. That they are great is never in question – we see the young Borg, a convincing debut from Leo Borg, declaring that he is going to be the best in the world, yet at the same time we are never allowed to stray too far from the painful frailty of the professional game – one decision here, one discussion, one wrongly strung racket, and all could be lost. Despite knowing the outcome of the match, and their inimitable success, it is this tension which keep us involved, a part of us wondering whether they will both make it to stardom.
We see Borg melt down in a visceral scene amongst the winter forest, and his turning from hot headed to ‘ice man’. The film neatly sets up the crowd-pleasing notion of the ice man against the superbrat, whilst simultaneously revealing their similarities – Borg drives himself for perfection, whilst McEnroe is a product of a perfectionist family – will either of them ever feel good enough, we wonder, will the best be good enough as they sweat it out on the court, and off it.
The period is nicely brought to life, and there was something raw, and even character-building about the simplicity of days gone by – the players share the same locker room – here there is room for interaction, friendship, humour and also suspicion – what did happen to that missing ankle strapping? How different this is to the modern game where the player’s entourage wraps them in a protective bubble.
The film poses some interesting questions – was it right to parade Borg at 15 in a Davis Cup match to boost media interest? Is it acceptable for Borg’s coach to demand the young boy suppress his emotions, for the sake of winning? Was this responsible for the Frankenstein’s monster created in the troubled young man, with his ritualistic obsessions?
Borg is played by Sverrir Gudnason, in a blistering performance – he is painfully convincing as Borg, and, as relatively unknown to British audiences, totally believable. We can feel the anguished bemusement as he loses a set to McEnroe, experience the love-hate, father-son relationship with his coach and taste their raw need for each other. Conversely, Shia LeBeouf, notwithstanding his acting abilities, is so well known a celebrity, that we can never quite suspend reality to believe he truly is McEnroe.
Of course, there is controversy about how much this story is true to life – and who will ever know what goes on in the locker room, player to coach? What is known is that the two gladiators became friends, and we see a touching scene at the airport where their similarities, or possibly their unique individual yet shared experiences, create an embryonic harmony.
Some aspects are underplayed – there are key players on the periphery or not really apparent at all, particularly the parents, as their sons become adults. Nevertheless, it is a captivating film, focused more on the characters, particularly Borg, than the on-court battle. It is said that tennis echoes the game of life, and this film convincingly reminds us of this painful truth.