American sports films usually align pretty closely with their respective stereotypes. Baseball movies carry an almost lackadaisical pace before zeroing in on an individual moment of achievement. Football movies (like war films) are about diverse characters overcoming their differences to fight for a common goal. Hockey movies celebrate rough-and-tumble outsiders trying to hit unlikely grace notes. There are exceptions, but usually not until enough commentators declare that a film captures the spirit of the sport well enough for other filmmakers to move on.
Tennis has deep roots in British gentry, and most films have followed suit as comedy-of-manners rom-coms. None, however, have been successful enough to epitomize the sport. Maybe that’s because previous films took their head-to-head nature too lightly. Unlike boxing, where you try to fight through personal pain by pounding your one-dimensional opponent into a pulp, or golf, where you never even have to see your opponent to be victorious over them, tennis is a game that necessitates two sides to the story. Which side gets prioritized, however, depends entirely on people like you: the commentators, who translate sport into drama.
Borg vs McEnroe, like Battle of the Sexes (which also premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival), tries to address this by telling two stories that are seemingly on a collision course to a meaningful conclusion. Both films also spend more time on one side of the court than the other - in this case, it’s with Björn Borg. As the Swedish superstar trying win a record fifth Wimbledon title against the young foul-mouthed up-and-coming American, it’s easy to see how this story could have been told from your American point of view. In fact, had the story been set in 1981 instead of 1980, that might very well have been the case. But as we read in the film’s opening text (the kind of summary usually reserved for an epilogue), the 1980 Wimbledon Championship match between Borg and John McEnroe would come to define and change the course of their lives.
Unfortunately, opening with that conclusion didn’t set the film up for a very satisfying climax.
Despite some beautiful cinematography by Niels Thastum, which often captures the artistry of the game from overhead and various forced perspectives, the final act of the film does not carry enough weight for those who aren’t already enamoured of the sport. We assume this game will change the two athlete’s lives (why else would you make a film about it?), so that type of commentary felt particularly geared to engage an American audience, whereas the film itself seem to cater to Swedish mythologizing. The performances by Shia LaBoeuf and Sverrir Gudnason are perfectly compelling, but the story itself never wants to go more than a few feet beyond their own stereotypes (the “Ice Borg” Swede who shows no emotion, and the “SuperBrat” American who lives and dies with every call). The central thesis that these two characters are not just complimentary on the court, but also flip sides to their own individual personalities, works on paper, but never fully materializes into an emotional moment for either. Instead, the final match is shot and edited more like a thriller, fixated on “;who did it / won it” rather than what it all means.
Because in a film, unlike sports commentary, we can’t just accept what someone tells us it means to the people we’re watching - we have to feel it all for ourselves.