To watch Showtime’s absorbing new documentary McEnroe is to be reminded of the pervasive sense of unhealthiness that once permeated sports commentary, and that surely still imbues some of it today. Whether spoken by John McEnroe himself or the professionals reporting on his eccentrically triumphant career, we are treated to variations on an aggro theme: “You’ve got to be a bit of a prick out there,” and “Nice guys don’t win at this game,” and “It’s a sport for killers.”
These could have been mantras for McEnroe during his rapid and astonishing ascent on the professional tennis circuit. Supported by never-before-seen footage and bolstered by interviews and insights from Billie Jean King, Patty Smyth, Björn Borg, Phil Knight and others, Director Barney Douglas dutifully covers the outsized ambition, talent and temper that turned McEnroe into the best and blusteriest tennis star on Earth. We see plenty of his notorious outbursts at genteel referees, his impossible returns and his ace serves — shots across the bow that feel spiked with vitriol at having to defeat not only his opponent but the neutral shot-caller and his own demons as well.
Athletes like McEnroe — a class that only included two or three names during his primacy on the pro tour — are likened invariably to chess players and to artists. McEnroe compares his methodology to psychological warfare. And when Borg announces his retirement at 26, a pivotal sequence in the narrative of McEnroe, this movie’s subject views it as a sort of betrayal, one that will leave McEnroe’s Sherlock Holmes without his Moriarty. Borg reflects to Douglas that “tennis is not everything in life.” This belief must have sounded to the young McEnroe like so much heresy.
The arc of Douglas’s movie is getting his protagonist to the same place. For all its airing of the toxic language surrounding the highest echelons of competition, McEnroe is a critique of the relentless drive to win. Douglas, who eases McEnroe into an unusually ruminative headspace, presents a sobering look at the ashes left behind by his fiery career, not limited to a broken marriage (to actor Tatum O’Neal), an emotionally absent fatherhood, and an off-court life of substance-fueled hedonism that comes to a head with the tragic death of the similarly Dionysian Vitas Gerulaitis, in 1994, from monoxide poisoning.
“I’m not very empathetic,” McEnroe offers. “That’s my biggest flaw.” Other keen self-observations and regrets will follow, involving his relationship to his dad, the imperious John McEnroe Sr., from whom his own drive and single-minded perfectionism carried down, and his own parenthood as the father of five children from two marriages. Douglas even conceived a nifty visual device for McEnroe’s evolution. We see McEnroe walking around his quiet suburban neighborhood of Douglaston, Queens, beginning with a time stamp of 10:30 p.m. at the movie’s outset, and continuing, on desolate streets lit for a film noir, until the wee hours of the next morning — a long night’s journey into day that doubles as a gradual awakening for the man himself.
This approach is a shorthand, of course. McEnroe probably sat down for days of interviews with Douglas before opening himself up to such insights — not to mention the decades of retirement that have allowed for a gradual course-correct.
Furthermore, Douglas’ film is not a comprehensive portrait of McEnroe; there is no mention, for instance, of his admission of having (unwittingly, he says) used steroids and his uneven attempts to leverage his celebrity into other pop-culture arenas, such as acting and television hosting. Remember his 2004 CNBC chat show McEnroe? Neither do we. (McEnroe does address a music career that failed to launch.)
Perhaps more of this post-tennis odyssey could have been explored, but the broader message hits home with surprising poignancy. Likeable and relatable, the 21st-century McEnroe is a figure of normalcy — in the summation of his wife Patty Smyth, he’s a “bad boy who turned into a nice guy.” McEnroe is ultimately a different sort of entry in the testosterone-drenched sports-movie genre. It’s a celebration of the mellow.
MCENROE. Director: Barney Douglas; Distributor: Showtime; Opens today on Showtime’s streaming services; premieres on Showtime’s cable channel at 7 p.m. Sunday