Let’s begin this review of “Borg Vs. McEnroe” with a huge spoiler alert. The final score of the 1980 Wimbledon men’s final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, which takes up the climactic last third of the movie, was 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6. It’s not a secret, really. And, in the end, it doesn’t really matter.
This fabulous, moody film isn’t your typical jock flick where bitter rivals compete to a crowning, sweaty end. There isn’t a real victor in “Borg Vs. McEnroe ” and the points don’t prove anything. It’s less a tennis movie than a meditation on the personal costs of chasing excellence.
Borg and McEnroe, seeded 1-2 at the start of the tournament, played tense, taut tennis for almost four hours, creating one of Wimbledon’s finest moments. The curly-haired youngster, chasing his first Wimbledon crown, was trying to prevent Borg from winning his fifth straight championship.
Shia LaBeouf plays McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason plays Borg and they’re both fantastic, nailing the tiny things like the way McEnroe twirled his racket or Borg’s hunched stance. But this film also requires both actors to reveal deep pools of inner turmoil and they somehow manage it with just a glance or a quiet moment. Borg and McEnroe rarely interact at all.
The Wimbledon final was framed as a battle between opposites. Borg was the quiet, efficient Swede, while McEnroe was the brash, swearing Yank (“You cannot be serious!” he was prone to scream at umpires.) It was a match between the stiletto and the sledgehammer, the gentleman against the rebel, the Ice-Borg versus the Superbrat.
But Ronnie Sandahl’s script and Janus Metz’ direction take us behind the stereotypes to reveal portraits of two men who actually have much in common in their loneliness and yearning. They love to win so much it hurts. Before matches, they seem to be silently awaiting their own executions.
Single-mindedness gnaws at their souls, destroying friendships and tormenting them. “Nobody will remember that I won Wimbledon four times in a row. Just that I lost the fifth time,” Borg says in anguish before the final. For his part, McEnroe lashes out at the puzzled press: “None of you understand it because none of you do it.”
In its athletic duel between an agent of cool and a hothead, the film is a lot like “Rush” but only with fuzzy balls instead of race cars. In many ways, it’s more like “I, Tonya,” in its impressionistic darkness. “Borg Vs. McEnroe” says it is “inspired by true events” which gives it plenty of wriggle room when it comes to the truth.
We learn that Borg was not always a controlled, cool customer. He was a firebrand like McEnroe but had the petulance trained out of him by a coach (a superb Stellan Skarsgard) who told him to put his rage and panic into every stroke. We learn that McEnroe idolized Borg, putting his poster on his wall and wearing a headband in emulation of the older man.
On the road to the 1980 finals, the filmmakers gives us flashbacks to each man’s childhood for insights. (The filmmakers get extra credit for casting Borg’s real-life son as a young Borg, who we see spending hours methodically smashing balls against a garage door.)
It also shows how people in these two men’s orbit — girlfriends, coaches and even fellow competitors — walk on eggshells around them, fearful of setting them off. To be the best in the world takes everything and leaves you slightly unhinged. Someone tells McEnroe: “It’s life and death for you. The others don’t feel the same. They’re not like you.”
Once the final Wimbledon match has been won — we’re not going to say who prevailed, we’re not totally awful — the two men happen to share a private moment in a public place that is touching and cathartic.
At one point, the camera during this exchange steps further away and we can no longer hear what these two champions are saying to each other. That’s fitting somehow: Only they — and anyone else who has been in their tennis shoes — can really understand.
“Borg Vs. McEnroe,” a Neon release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language throughout and some nudity.” Running time: 107 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.