Tennis star John McEnroe hates Borg vs. McEnroe, Janus Metz's film about McEnroe's famous 1980 Wimbledon match with Björn Borg. It's important to know that.
McEnroe thinks that Shia LaBeouf's portrayal of him is bad and makes him look like a jerk. But of all the things that made McEnroe a household name in the 1980s, none even comes close to this simple truth: He is one of the greatest jerks in the history of television. Indeed, I even think LaBeouf and the director didn't go far enough with his iconic antics. Their McEnroe is almost likable and has quiet, reflective moments.
Whereas one expects the real McEnroe to be a jerk when he wakes up, a jerk when he eats his Wheaties, a jerk when he puts his sweatband on his white-guy-afro. We expect—because we know it to be true—that McEnroe is a jerk when his fans ask for an autograph. We know him to be a major fucking jerk when an umpire makes a call he doesn't like. This is the McEnroe we know and love and will never forget.
Though Shia LaBeouf doesn't push his character to the limit, Sverrir Gudnason, a Swedish actor, does. His portrayal of Björn Borg is just superb. The look on his face when he is standing on a balcony with a view of the Mediterranean Sea, or when he is fleeing fans on a city street, or while he waits for a serve is never anything but compact and hard. Little from the outside world enters it, and nothing from inside leaves it. This athlete is a soul-cold winning machine.
What makes Gudnason's performance so remarkable is this: Every moment he is on the screen, he expresses the interiority of a man who can't afford to lose even one match. One crack, one defeat, and his whole mind and being would go down like a massive ice shelf crashing into the sea.
McEnroe is already nuts. He is free to scream and smash his tennis rackets as much as he wants. And if he loses the match, he can continue being a jerk in the locker room and a bigger jerk to sportscasters. Gudnason's Borg has no such freedom, which is why the film is really about him—a man who must win or end up in a rubber room.Spoiler: Borg won the Wimbledon men's singles final in 1980.