McEnroe – Film Review
by Brian Merriman
Written and Directed by Barney Douglas
Filmaker, Barney Douglas has more than a modern Dickensian style in the way he writes and directs this refreshing insight into the life and motivation of one of the world’s meteoric tennis champions John McEnroe.
McEnroe is calmly featured throughout as a loner, strolling through city streets in the small hours, at times, gazing into windows where inside, another tennis icon talks about his impact on the game and modern sport.
It is a strongly visual and somewhat surreal treatment that works well in maintaining keen interest throughout. McEnroe certainly changed the conduct of this solo sport. He felt he was on his own on the court and as a perfectionist, he was his own worst critic. The outbursts were equally divided between severe self-criticism and abuse to others. And he was very young when his talent propelled him into the headlines and onto the winners rostra of so many internationally renowned competitions. Then he was portrayed, often deservedly, as temperamental and a brat. Yet every close-up in this film, reveals a vulnerability, a shyness and an unsatiable appetite to prove himself capable of the highest standards in his sport.
This documentary is no tantrum celebration or denial. Douglas settles his subject well from the start, and as a result, we gain a completion of the episodes that created, almost derailed and rejuvenated his life at the top of his game. He arrived as ‘the new kid on the block’, defied expectations, and went on to play with his icons and many times to prevail.
That quick and epic journey is presented through some wonderful archival footage. We are reminded of the heady times of a cohort of great young athletes who grew up in a time of new technology, more media and the demands of instant news in which they had to survive and compete. For the obvious skill and expertise to take second place to his clothes, girlfriends and party behaviour, in the media, was an additional mental burden in an era which threw up a huge amount of skilled tennis players – many of who remain household names today.
What is also revealing is that despite the professional rivalry between these top athletes, it is comforting to see some of the stars reach out to this troubled young man and befriend him off the court. The interview with Bjorn Borg is a particular highlight of the piece as is the insight into Jimmy Connors’s behaviour, his friendship with Vitas Gerualitis and Billie Jean King and many more. Tributes continue throughout the credits.
His love life, five children, two with Tatum O’Neal and three with singer Patty Smyth, and his relationships with his father/manager and siblings, show a tight-knit driven and loyal family that surrounded McEnroe with drive and ambition. Patty speculates that he is ‘on the spectrum’ and McEnroe admits to multiple analysis sessions by psychiatrists etc. He is certainly unique.
There is a feeling throughout the film that he remains a self-critical boy at heart. His ego is now tempered, his friendships enduring, his humble self-analysis of his own parenting is open and honest.
There is so much more to this super talent. This documentary relegates the tantrums to a place very far down on the scale, which allows the complete man to be revealed. What is revealed on screen is engaging, humble, honest and cleverly visual.
There are a lot of documentaries doing the rounds at present. McEnroe the film, one stands out for its creative approach and the conduct and integrity of its subject matter. Just like McEnroe himself, this film is a bit different – good different.