53rd Chicago Int’l Film Fest #20: “Borg/McEnroe” (Sweden/Denmark/Finland)

“Borg/McEnroe” (Sweden/Denmark/Finland)
Directed by Janus Metz

6860My notes for this film consist of one word: “Boring”. Looking back, that’s probably not a fair moniker. It’s actually pretty good when inspecting individual elements. But by film’s end…it’s pretty damned close. Based on the epic 1980 Wimbledon final between the two eponymous tennis stars, Metz has attempted to find a theatrically worthwhile study of the two tennis icons as men…the surroundings in which they were raised…and how those surroundings played out in their relational and competitive selves. And had it JUST been that, it might have worked just as well as, say, “Rush”, the brilliant film about long time rivals in the Grand Prix racing circuit. But Metz ALSO wants to give us a sports film, “Rocky III” specifically, where Borg is the aging Rocky and John McEnroe is the upstart Clubber Lang.

It is not a successful combination. The psychological examination that makes up the first two acts, while not exactly gripping, are certainly well made and keep your attention. But when it gets to the big fight…er…match, Metz is truly out of his depth. Quick cuts, slow motion, crowd noise disappearing, a million shots of the people closest to each with hands clasped together in anxiety and hope, and a SCREECHING American announcer that I can only assume is supposed to approximate Bud Collins (but sounds more like Howard Cossell), all act as a wall between the action and our interest. Now, I am willing to admit that maybe, as someone who watched the match live and remembers the passing of the torch from Borg to McEnroe, I found the LOOOONG match sequence to be tedious and redundant when I wanted it to be thrilling. Perhaps, if I was too young to remember Borg, I might have experienced it differently. But truly, the techniques for building tension in a sporting event are tried and true – pick one…maybe two. Piling them all up on top of each other is not helpful – it’s exhausting.

And, unfortunately, it utterly overshadows some great performances – which is the real reason to see the film. Sverrir Gudnason is uncanny as Borg. American audiences may only know him from the Swedish version of “Wallander” (still available on Netflix, I believe), but he’s terrific. Layered with an economy of action, it’s a performance you’ll remember. Shia LeBeouf, as McEnroe is also spot on…kind of a perfect choice, actually. He gives the spoiled brat persona three dimensions…we understand where in his psyche it gurgles up from…and still abhor it. In the end, we root for BOTH of them – which, again, goes against the good versus evil setup of that final act. What DOES help is that Metz shows the two of them in their formative years, where they are convincingly played by Leo Borg (Borg ages 9-13) and Marcus Mossberg (Borg at 15) and Jackson Gann, who is terrific as the young McEnroe. Tuva Novotny, who is fantastic in “The Kings Choice”, isn’t given a real spine in this film, but is eminently watchable. However, I must point out that if you’re going to find two actors who so completely resemble their historic counterparts, then you need to follow through with the rest. I mean, Tom Datnow, who is a fine actor, looks like they just slapped a wig on him and said “okay, you’re jimmy Connors”. There are several instances like that, and it’s too bad. It takes you right out of the film (assuming you remember them).

The production components are all fine. Nothing stands out, although I did appreciate the subdued color pallet. It fits our memory of what television was in that age. But the less said about the intrusive score, credited to FOUR different composers, the better.

“Borg/McEnroe” is a lovingly accurate, and illuminating reenactment. It’s just not a very good movie.

Written on 11/10/2017

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