It’s quite an achievement when a documentary project appears on the 2022/23 BAFTA long-list; that’s for the ten best docs in any given year. So Barney Douglas’ film about the famous American tennis player has already exceeded expectations; as many, from Ali McGraw to Will Smith, have found out to their cost, tennis is rarely big-screen box office, but McEnroe exactly is the kind of subject who justifies a 104 minutes of anyone’s time. Sure, there was a Borg vs McEnroe film, with no less that Shia LeBouef playing JP, but that was a fairly tatty, semi-tabloid affair, and if you want to get anywhere near the truth, a good old fashioned clip reel and some fresh interviews does the trick.
So why is McEnroe still a household name four decades after his peak? Around the early 80’s, McEnroe’s willingness to confront the establishment at Wimbledon’s All England Lawn Tennis club made him an instant and enduring pop culture phenomenon. Everything from novelty records to comedy-send-ups resulted, as well as glib think-pieces about the dangeous new direction of society, but McEnroe rarely seemed to enjoy the joke; he was always serious in a way that others were not. Perhaps he might have thrived on better advice, but while McEnroe’s temper arguably lost him some key matches, it had the unintended side-effect of making him a potent anti-hero for generations to come.
Douglas has a complex protagonist to sketch, but a reasonably simple story to tell; McEnroe starts big with huge, well-publicised tantrums, then he manages to grind out the victories that made him a great champion of the game as he matured. There’s some new footage of JP wandering the streets of NYC which allow for some more personal VO, but it’s to everyone’s credit that there’s not too much Monday-morning quarterbacking about the rights and wrongs of his career, just a bald description of what happened and a somewhat rueful suggestion of why. There’s probably still a more expansive doc to be made on this subject, but McEnroe the movie will do for the time being.
Of course, McEnroe regularly explained that his outbursts and anger were actually directed towards himself rather than others, but given the stuffed shirts he regularly found himself up against, he can’t be the only culprit for these explosions of venom. So why did John McEnroe happen the way he did? Most sports are illicitly, unobtrusively fixed as much as possible to create a desirable result; McEnroe’s fury was directed at a system that wasn’t working for him, and which temporarily diminished his own sense of self as a result. The angry young man isn’t so angry these days, based on this evidence, but perhaps he should be; sports are still a fragile area when it comes to supposed fairness, and Douglas’ film does a good job of recording the full force of a bull in an antiquarian china shop.