By Samantha Olsen
John McEnroe had arguably the greatest tennis season of all in 1984. In his profile of McEnroe for ESPN Classic, sportswriter Larry Schwartz recalls that the American “blew away the competition” that year, as he was close to unbeatable, compiling an 82-3 record to go along with two Grand Slams and 13 championships in total. It was a season for the ages, matched only by Roger Federer. The Swiss icon had a resurgent 2017 and continues to play at a very high level, some 12 years after his own 2006 season for the ages. Like McEnroe’s 1984 masterpiece, Federer was nearly unbeatable in 2006, going 92-5 with 12 titles and three Grand Slams. Unlike McEnroe’s run of dominance, though, Federer’s was largely devoid of drama, while McNasty’s was full of it. That sets the stage for the 95-minute sports documentary John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, which takes a look at that memorable season 34 years ago.
Unique as McEnroe, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection is director Julien Faraut’s stab at experimental documentary filmmaking. He splices together 16 mm footage (shot by the first technical director for the French Sports Institute, Gil de Kermadec) of McEnroe’s legendary 1984 season of near perfection, where he lost only three times. Let that sink in: He lost only three times throughout the entire season! One of his losses was an absolute heartbreaker: the finals of the French Open at Roland Garros. The film’s form calls to mind Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, though the former has much more flair and is far more dramatic and intense. Then again, what would you expect from a film about the mercurial McEnroe, right?
John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection is a re-imagination of a tennis icon, an attempt to pinpoint what made this tennis great one of the best of his time. And herein lies the film’s crux: McEnroe was an athletic perfectionist, someone who brought his best every single time. He demanded the same from his opponent, the officials and everyone else. Anything less was a source of frustration for McEnroe and his temper tantrums were the manifestations.
Faraut’s cinematic portrait of McEnroe sheds light on one of sports’ most reviled and misunderstood superstars, with this line, uttered by the narrator (Mathieu Amalric, who was exceptional by the way), encapsulating the McEnroe mystique: “If spectators quickly realized that McEnroe had an unusual style and feel for the game, very few of them understood that he was also a man who played on the edge of his senses.” In other words, people saw only the transcendent talent and the anger; however, they didn’t understand that McEnroe’s blessing was also his curse; that his preternatural abilities caused his all-too-common fits of rage.
McEnroe’s tennis wizardry is on full display in John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, as it should be. But Faraut invariably leans on McEnroe’s outbursts, and there are many in the film, included either as a mechanism to move the story along or to provide a renewed vantage point on the psychology of what turns the tennis great from McEnroe to McNasty. Faraut holds everything together seamlessly, using every bit of de Kermadec’s extensive collection of archival footage to retell that 1984 season and uncover the man behind the meltdowns. The result is a witty, insightful documentary that flows artfully from serve to volley to rant and back. It is close to a masterpiece and deserves a full point more than Battle of the Sexes, to which we gave a rating of 3 on MovieQuotesandMore. What’s more, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection is a treat for everyone and that means even non-tennis fans will be able to enjoy and appreciate it.