2018 Milwaukee Film Festival – Review – BORG VS. MCENROE
There’s never been a great tennis movie, but BORG VS. MCENROE makes a valiant effort towards being the first. With a focus on perhaps the greatest match in tennis history, BORG VS. MCENROE certainly has ripe subject matter and star appeal. Especially as the public personas of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe could not be more different at the time.
But, as a production of Sweden, Denmark, and Finland from director Janus Metz it should not be surprising that the focus is on the great Bjorn Borg much more than the American John McEnroe. BORG VS. BORG would not have been an inaccurate title as it’s clear he’s battling internal pressure as much as his external opponents. The film makes the case that Borg has as much internal rage as his fiery American counterpart, but it’s just been bottled up at an early age and redirected into every swing of the racket. Unfortunately, despite a really strong performance by Sverrir Gudnason, there’s really no explanation of where that rage comes from. The film tells us a good deal about what Borg became as a person, but it doesn’t really have all that much that satisfactorily explains the how and the why.
The character sketch of McEnroe, despite much more limited time, actually fares better. It helps that John McEnroe is the perfect vehicle for Shia LaBeouf. There will be higher profile domestic films that garner actors Supporting Actor nominations, but I guarantee you that LaBeouf’s performance as McEnroe matches up with all of them. The film makes a case that it’s part act and strategy, although the rage stemming from living up to a perfectionist father is about all the film allows as explanation. Doing difficult multiplication problems to show off to family friends isn’t entirely satisfactory as an explanation.
But, if the film isn’t entirely satisfactory as drama or character study, and maintains a chilly distance throughout, it’s absolutely riveting when it gets to reenact the matches. It leads off with Borg in the middle of his finale with McEnroe, which perhaps takes some of the tension out of the lead up matches, but all of the matches are staged and created so that you can see the opponents strategy and the athleticism of all involved. It looks like a tremendous combination of skill, athleticism, and mental discipline to succeed at this level. And never more so than in the climactic match which is as thrilling a sporting match you’ll see all year, possibly excluding a ROCKY movie.
It’s not a must see, but with terrific performances from the two leads, a microscopic look at the highest level of tennis competition, and expertly staged matches it might be the best tennis movie to date. Finding an equally legendary match for dramatization is going to prove to be extremely difficult.
BORG VS. MCENROE plays twice more at the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival as part of the Sportsball programming block on Sunday, October 28 at 6:30 pm at the Oriental Theater and on Tuesday, October 30 at 9:30 pm at the Avalon Theater.
The 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from October 18, 2018 to November 1, 2018. Information and tickets can be found at Milwaukee Film’s website.