' ' Cinema Romantico: Borg vs. McEnroe

Monday, August 20, 2018

Borg vs. McEnroe

Between points, the old surly Czech tennis legend Ivan Lendl would inspect the strings of his racket. It was as familiar as Maria Sharapova shrieking or Rafael Nadal dealing with his wedgie. Tomes were frequently composed regarding Lendl’s inspections, because even if it was nothing more than an athlete dependent upon a piece of equipment ensuring his piece of equipment was still okay, it looked, well, like a man searching for something beyond those strings. And while director Janus Metz Pedersen places the celebrated 1980 Wimbledon Final that gives “Borg vs. McEnroe” its title at the beginning before flashing back, the actual first shot is of Swedish tennis star Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) inspecting his racket Lendl-style. The camera is on the opposite side of the strings, looking up through them at Borg looking back with something that might be determination, but might also be desolation. Because even if the film gradually winds its way back to the 1980 Final, it is as much about psychology as feats of strength.

“Borg vs. McEnroe” wastes little time in illuminating the former’s unyielding mental pressure. In an opening scene he is swarmed by fans on the streets of Monaco and ducks into a cafe. There he bonds briefly with the waiter behind the counter who asks what Borg does. “Electrician,” says Borg in trying to disappear into another life if only for a moment. “If you are an electrician,” says the waiter, “I’m the King of Monaco.” It is an early sign of the film’s unfortunate tendency to try and distill its psychological examination down to fortune cookie wisdom. It is better forgoing behaviorism jingles for visual expression, like the preceding scene where we see Borg on a Monaco hotel balcony. At first, he looks over the edge, and the point-of-view shot seeing the pool far below makes us wonder, for an instant, if he’s considering jumping. Then a shot from the side shows him as he transitions into push-ups using the balcony railing as a base, before the angle switches again to directly behind him, allowing us to see the Mediterranean spread out before him, to which his laser focus leaves him indifferent.

If this moment shows us his despair, it also shows us his ability to push that despair away in the name of preparation. This ability is further evinced in the movie’s frequent flashbacks to his past where a coach, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård), seeing potential where others only see a headache, takes the volatile young Borg under his wing and then gradually molds him in such a way as to eradicate his on court emotional outbursts by channeling them into his play. In that light, Borg’s eventual Wimbledon Final opponent, John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), the so-called Superbrat, becomes something less than a mere tennis antagonist and more an unwanted reflection in the mirror.

McEnroe’s introduction, sitting in the green room of a talk show as AC DC throttles on the soundtrack and highlights (lowlights) of McEnroe’s greatest tantrums rolls, is as hysterically effective as it obvious. The curtness of the cuts between McEnroe muttering to himself on the couch and McEnroe screaming on the tennis court is a quick window into his turbulent psyche. Yet this, more or less, serves as the script’s entire window into McEnroe’s personality, aside from a couple cursory flashbacks of his own. Much of whoever and whatever McEnroe might be is left to LaBeouf, which is A+ casting as the actor’s famously explosive temperament sings in note-perfect harmony with the actual McEnroe’s. Not that LaBeouf is just doing an impersonation. No, in every swear word, in every glare, in every exasperated wiping of sweat from his brow, he looks like a man truly convinced the whole wide world and everything and everyone within it is conspiring against him.

Putting two such disparate personalities, then, across the net from each other for the climactic Wimbledon Final would seem to suggest, say, the chance to bring the air of so many Louisa Thomas tennis pieces, where she deftly employs a match as a means to explore the emotional and stylistic contrasts of its opponents, to cinematic life. That, however, is a visual feat Pedersen cannot turn. Nor can he turn the climactic Wimbledon Final into, perhaps, a visual approximation of David Foster Wallace’s renowned New York Times piece Roger Federer as Religious Experience. That would have required a deep dive into the elemental, and this is a movie that stops to simply explain what a tiebreak is. Alas, the Wimbledon Final is treated more like the Miracle on Ice in “Miracle”, a rapid-cut montage with announcers filling in the narrative blanks. And given that Pedersen devotes so much time to the match, this unimaginative rendering of it winds up as an egregious letdown.

It’s a weird paradox that might have been on purpose if I knew it wasn’t. For all the digging it does into Borg, and McEnroe, off the court, what they do on the court is still above us mere mortals.

No comments: