Boris Becker — Wimbledon Champion at 17, retired tennis idol at 29, broke and tossed in a British prison at 54.
That’s the story the world’s greatest investigative documentarian, Alex Gibney, sets out to tell and the subject he tries to psychoanalyze in “Boom Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker.”
You can see some of the possibilities Gibney saw, just in that cursory summary of “Boom Boom” Becker, who dominated tennis in the late ’80s into the early ’90s. Gibney won an Oscar for his Afghan expose “Taxi to the Dark Side,”is famous for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and other “big fish” investigative films on subjects from Scientolgy to Big Pharma. And he’s no stranger to controversial sports figures, having done a series for ESPN and filmed the definitive Lance Armstrong takedown (“The Armstrong Lie”).
But it’s pretty obvious pretty early on that “The World vs. Boris Becker” isn’t anything like that level of deep dive into an athlete’s misbehavior, that Becker’s not remotely the tortured soul or nefarious figure Armstrong turned out to be.
Becker’s sins? He’s been a philanderer. He’s been careless with money, and made stupid decisions. He chased away the coach that made him and the manager that made him rich, and canned the financial planner that made his entitled “retired” life work, so far as he could tell.
Becker’s careless. At least some of his problems — the German ones, anyway — have a whiff of “schadenfreude” about them. And while Gibney suggests this masterful “story teller” — something many a great athlete evolves into — lies, kids himself or dissembles about this or that detail of his rise and fall. Maybe Becker is as lacking in self-awareness as the rest of us.
As a film, “Boom Boom” has a hard time justifying the exhaustive three and a half hours, in two parts, that the irons-in-many-fires Gibney delivered to Apple TV+. In sports metaphor terms, Gibney didn’t lay a glove on him. But it’s still a worthwhile film, simply in a sporting sense.
Gibney, serving as narrator and interrogator, tells us that he landed two stretches of time to chat up his subject — 2019 and 2022, just as Becker was facing sentencing. That may explain the film’s surface gloss feel, something Gibney tries to compensate for in his narration. But given three and a half hours of our time, we have a right to expect something a lot deeper.
In part one, “Triumph,” Becker briefly skims over his childhood — winning his first tennis tourney at 6, his dropping out of school to turn professional and his meteoric rise — coached by Germany’s best and managed by the inscrutable Romanian, Ion Tiriac, who becomes the “star” of this documentary.
In part two, “Disaster,” we get a cursory glance at the ways Becker got himself into trouble, abandoning some trusted advisors, losing his dad just when he was entering retirement and needed him the most.
“Boom Boom” is at its best as a tennis doc. The “downfall” material is wide and broad enough to be interesting, but seems lower stakes and more referenced than deeply explored.
As Becker leads us on a behind-the-scenes locker tour at the All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, hear him embrace the famed Rudyard Kipling “triumph” and “disaster” quote that is the last thing players see before entering the stadium, and tells tales of what was going on in this or that match and the pre-courtside-mike trash talk and gamesmanship that was going on, “Boom Boom” really hits its stride.
The man retired having won 64 titles, and matches and moments with the great (Sampras, Agassi, Lendl, McEnroe) and the forgotten are memorably recalled and recreated here.
Becker was as temperamental as the American “brats,” Conners and McEnroe — but also a gloriously demonstrative winner. That’s probably why he was revered in his German homeland and became “Britain’s favorite German” in his adoptive one, the place that felt like “home” — Wimbledon.
His willingness to dive for shots, “to go where it hurts a little bit to win the point” became his trademark. His dominant serve-and-volley game made him intimidating, but those dives had to unnerve everybody who came up against him in those early years.
Using archival footage from matches and decades of interviews, including lovely bloom-of-youth “Boris returns to Wimbledon” material, Gibney paints a portrait of the athlete’s storied professional life.
But much of what we really learn about him from back then comes from Tiriac, an unforgettable figure who haunted tournaments starring his famous client, supposedly secretly “coaching” from the stands — a bear of a man with a fu manchu mustache, omnipresent shades, a suit and a cigarette always on his lips.
Tiriac may be less imposing in his dotage, but his refreshing bluntness and sharp memory make him stand out. He became Becker’s business manager and quasi-life coach, having enjoyed a bit of notoriety as a player himself in the ’70s.
His advice after that first Wimbledon win?
“When you walk off the court, you’re a wanted man.”
Like Borg before him, Becker became a matinee idol. Unlike Borg, he tried to work “having a good time” and living his life into the training, focus and constant public attention. Another lesson of the film is that nobody is really ready for that, and yet there’s no excuse for not taking care with who you surround yourself with.
As “The World vs Boris” progresses and the financial fumbling remains vague and the uncertain psychological analyis comes up, one is tempted to put Gibney himself on the couch. This film’s excessive running time is a sign he’s spread himself and his brand too thin to give this a proper edit. “Boom Boom” is an hour too long. Gibney didn’t get key figures Andre Agassi or Agassi’s wife, Steffi Graf (who rose to fame at the same time as Boris, and grew up ten miles away) to sit down, another argument that this is but an overlong surface gloss.
We hear about the way athletes run through money and expect it to keep coming after they hang it up for the umpteenth time, and hear Becker, his ex-wife and others talk about how “untouchable” the private jet set come to regard themselves.
The timing of this film also figures into how one looks at it, seeing the way public figures are public targets (Helllloooo, Gwyneth Paltrow). Male athletes are often honey-trapped into one-night-stand fatherhood. Becker strayed — his fault. But Gibney doesn’t dwell on this predatory with a famous pregnancy setting them up for life corner of pro athlete “risk” via women we’re no longer allowed to label “golddiggers.”
That would be a FASCINATING documentary, by the way. It doesn’t just happen to NBA stars, NFL stars or college players just as they face the NBA or NFL draft.
The gamesmanship Becker describes, flirting with Brooke Shields in the stands to rattle her husband, Andre Aggasi, links up with Shields’ autobiographical tour in which she lists the depths of Aggasi’s jealousy. Shields isn’t intereviewed about that, here.
But “Boom Boom” — which uses Becker’s nickname as an excuse to play John Lee Hooker’s greatest hit in the opening credits, with Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns & Money” closing each episode — evolves, even in its “downward spiral” minutes, into an affectionate portrait of a flawed figure, his life and a very different time in tennis.
It’s great that he was able to help coach Novak Djokovich that last few steps into tennis dominance. But Djokovic’s presence here is a reminder of how colorless the Sampras-and-beyond generation of big hitters, superhumanly-long rallies stars have turned out to be.
Nadal and Federer and Djokovic can seem like automatons of the Ivan Lendl school. Even the lone scandal of that trio — Djokovic’s anti-vax stance — is boring.
Becker and his ilk? They were gunslingers (Spaghetti Western music abounds) who left it on the court, sometimes literally in blood and skinned knees. That, not any dumb and just-nefarious-enough financial downfall, is what makes him memorable.
Rating: unrated, profanity
Cast: Boris Becker, Brad Gilbert, Ion Tiriac, Barbara Becker, Bjorn Borg, Lilian de Carvalho Monteiro, Novak Djokovic and John McEnroe
Credits: Scripted and directed by Alex Gibney:
Running time: “Triumph,” 1:38, “Disaster,” 1:54