Why Casting Shia LeBeouf As A Raging Tennis Star Was A Brilliant Move
“Borg/McEnroe” is perhaps one of the most anticipated movies premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Starring Shia LeBeouf as John McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason as Björn Borg, “Borg/McEnroe” details the fierce tennis rivalry (“Fire and Ice,” “IceBorg versus Superbrat”) that captivated the world in the 1980 Wimbledon Championships.
LaBeouf has become as infamous for his volatile behavior as he is famous for his acting career, having been arrested at his January 2017 anti-Trump art installation and faced charges of drunk driving and disorderly conduct in the past.
So casting LeBeouf as the hot-tempered McEnroe seems like some kind of kismet. LeBeouf, for his part, seems to genuinely respect McEnroe and wants to do justice to the icon, and discussed getting into character with Deadline:
“When he entered the game, it was a power sport,” said LaBeouf. “Borg brought touch and feel that wasn’t in the game. It wasn’t screaming rage. McEnroe used screaming rage as tactic, to manufacture his intensity to hype himself up. In that way, he’s an artist.”
For the record, John McEnroe is not totally on board with the movie:
‘I’ve never seen a good tennis movie. They all were terrible,’ McEnroe told Vanity Fair, before claiming neither actor looked well cast. ‘They look like actors who can’t play. You see these guys, they go out there and they barely even know how to play tennis.’ He did, however, offer an olive branch to LaBeouf, saying: ‘Supposedly he’s crazy. So maybe that works.’
So what are the critics saying about “Borg/McEnroe”? While the movie doesn’t have a set release date yet, let’s take a look at how people are receiving this fictionalization of one of the most memorable sports moments in history.
LaBeouf and Gudnason give performances as good as you could want here, bringing unexpected shades to the well known characters. Viewers who were repelled by McEnroe’s antics in their day would be hard pressed not to sympathize with him here (insert your own observations about the relevance of LaBeouf’s first-hand experience with public scorn); and as Borg, Gudnason is a time-bomb of self doubt hidden under golden tresses and a fur coat. Rarely has someone seemed to enjoy the high life so little […] The match itself, widely considered one of the greatest moments in sports, begins around the 70-minute mark, and just about gets its due. Using few shots that view both players on the court at once, Metz weaves close-ups and work by body-double athletes into a convincing epic.
If not for LaBeouf, ‘Borg/McEnroe’ would have nothing to offer that you couldn’t get from simply watching a broadcast of the 1980 Wimbledon Men’s Final […] If anything, LaBeouf is so compelling as himself that it’s easy to forget he’s playing someone else (it’s genuinely jarring when he receives a note to addressed to ‘John McEnroe’). In a movie that contradicts its overbearing morals and offers only the most ambivalent conclusions about the right way to win at Wimbledon, it’s gratifying to watch one of Metz’s leads prove the story’s primary lesson: Focus on the things you can control, because it’s the only way to deal with the things you can’t […] What we’re left with is a staid little movie that races around the court and rallies itself to exhaustion, a historical drama that enshrines the narrative underpinnings of all great sports stories without doing anything to upend them. [Grade: C]
Studying one another on TV, and recognizing aspects of themselves in one another, McEnroe wonders what happens when the pressure becomes too much for the well-behaved Borg to contain, while Borg sees past McEnroe’s shouty shenanigans and recognizes his extreme underlying discipline as a player. The more Metz reveals of each of their upbringing, the more they start to seem like variations on the same character — a theory that comes into full focus (at least as dramatized here) when they finally face off in the final round of Wimbledon, 1980 […] Whereas Borg is viewed as a consummate professional and gentleman on-court and off, McEnroe is characterized as a hair-trigger hothead, who argues with referees, swears at the audience and swats the air with his racket, as if looking to hurt someone when a rally goes bad. Playing tennis may not seem the best use of LaBeouf’s talents, but the star is terrific in a role that shrewdly plays off his controversial off-screen persona.
What we need from these kinds of movies is to bring the story back down to Earth and provide the nuance the ecstatic sports writers left out. Sadly, the only insight Metz can gleam is that Borg wasn’t as icy as he appeared and McEnroe was a little more soulful than his raging tantrums let on […] Gudnason and LaBeouf both give great performances, but the script never gives them much to work with beyond ‘In these scenes you’re icy/hot, and in these scenes you’re angry/reserved.’ [Grade: C-]
The awful truth was that for all their rivalry and wildly different styles, there wasn’t any needle between these two men personally, no tension, nothing outside the tennis court for us to get excited about. Really, almost any other pairing of characters from this film would have been more interesting […] Well, LaBeouf is good casting – really, the only possible casting – and he channels McEnroe’s simmering resentment and winner-rage plausibly enough […] Borg suppressed his temper to become a great tennis player; but then McEnroe did the opposite and he’s a great player too. So what’s the life lesson here? What’s the point? [Grade: 2 stars out of 5]
Deborah Krieger is a curatorial assistant and freelance arts and culture writer. She had written for The Awl, Bust Magazine, PopMatters, Paste Magazine, Whitehot Magazine, and blogs at www.i-on-the-arts.com/