[Movies] Review: Senna

There can be few lives better suited to the stuff of motion picture narrative than Ayrton Senna’s. Born in a sport-obsessed country beset by social problems he rose through the ranks of karting to become the greatest Formula One driver of his generation, beloved by millions, but all-too-often cruelly snubbed by the sport’s powerful elite. That his meteoric rise and struggles against adversity ended with his tragic death in 1994 only compounds his brilliance and ensures his place in the popular pysche as the Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix of motor racing. So it surely didn’t take a great leap of imagination for Asif Kapadia to decide to focus his fourth feature length movie on the Brazilian legend.

With so much footage available of Formula One (surely the most visually recorded sport on Earth) there was no shortage of material for Kapadia to use, and thankfully he chooses to use contemporary interviews in audio only, refusing to break up the flow of the narrative. Senna’s story, therefore is told almost as live action drama. The timeline is fixed and linear. His early life and karting success is dealt with in a few minutes, while the meat of the documentary focuses on his time with McLaren in the late 80s and his battles with Alain Prost.

The action is great, and while Kapadia has used much of the original TV footage familiar to F1 fans the world over, he’s added to the race shots with video sourced by other means, including what look like camcorder shots and unbroadcast raw camera footage. Most thrilling of all are the blurry, shaky in-car shots of Senna’s McLaren as the the great man slides, twitches and manhandles it at ridiculous speeds through the narrow streets of Monaco. If you’ve ever wondered why F1 drivers earn the money they do, seeing Senna driving at the ragged edge on a big screen will convince you that he, at least, was worth every penny he earned.

Of course, it’s not all high-octane thrills. Races and seasons are interspersed with interviews showing Senna in reflective, and religious, mood. There are also several minutes of home video footage showing Senna and his family relaxing away from the fame of the F1 grid. While the introspective stuff from Senna is illuminating, in a very limited way, it’s the on-track action, and his battles with Prost and former FIA president Jean Marie Balestre that really thrill. We feel Senna’s pain as he is stripped of his race win at Japan, despite the dastardly Prost apparently being to blame for the accident which saw them both leave the track. We cheer when he wins his first World Championship and laugh when he chats up a TV personality on what appears to be a  Brazillian Christmas special.

It’s all engaging, and entertaining. But fails to really scratch very far beyond the surface of one of sport’s most contradictory figures. At times the film can border on hagiography. Prost and Balestre are painted as villains, and Senna as the messianic hero wronged time and again by the sport and those who control it. While Prost is villified for reporting Senna to the race stewards for infringing the rules, Senna’s own decision to ram Prost into the wall a year later, thereby securing his own championship win, is excused as just revenge for the wrongs foist upon the Brazilian. The fact that Senna was as ruthless a driver as Prost, and that both would happily risk the lives of their rivals to win, is skated over. Senna’s marriage is also not mentioned at all, nor is his courtship of a 15 year old girl, and their eventual engagement.

Senna was undoubtedly a great driver, perhaps the greatest of all time, and a fascinating man. He was stunningly arrogant, as all F1 drivers are, yet capable of great acts of generosity, both on and off track. He was successful, yet never, it seemed at peace, and while others around him basked in the wealth their fame provided, he quietly gave millions to charity. These themes are all touched on in Kapadia’s movie, but none is ever satisfyingly explored or explained. While we hear Senna’s views of himself, and of God, repeatedly in this film, the limited selection of other voices are left to ruminate pirmarily on his greatness as a driver, and not on the contradictions that made him so fascinating.

It’s a missed opportunity for a film that could do more to unearth the real man behind the visor. Kapadia instead serves up a pseudo-intellectual sports film; an Ivy League Major League, Days of Thunder with talky-bits. The action is thrilling, and the narrative is crowd pleasing, but in truth those are the two elements that anyone could get from simply watching Senna in action on TV twenty years ago. Kapadia brings little else to the table, and in many respects does the Senna story a slight disservice.

His treatment of Prost is equally unfair. The Frenchman, who went on to win four world titles and is regarded as another true great of the sport, is used as little more than a moustache-twirling villain; the Judas to Senna’s Christ, the Jean Girard to his Ricky Bobby. While the two did indeed hate each other during the peak of their rivalry, the film glances over their poignant reconciliation just months before Senna’s death and only the eagle-eyed viewer will note that Prost is one of the pall-bearers at Senna’s funeral. It’s telling that of the talking heads Kapadia chooses to use, neither Prost, nor any of the other drivers with whom Senna competed are present except in interviews given in the heat of the moment. It would have been fairer on the Frenchman to hear how he views his rivalry with Senna now, than to rely on his thoughts in the heat of their battles.

The film, therefore fails somewhat as a documentary, it tells us little more about its subject than most people already knew, or could deduce from an hour spent scanning YouTube and reading Wikipedia. It’s incredibly selective with its use of facts, and with those whom it allows to speak about its subject. Its version of history is skewed, dedicated to holding Senna up on a pedestal without ever properly scrutinising his contradictory nature and behaviour. In that respect it is a disappointment. Taken as entertainment though, it works well. Just like a historical drama that trades veracity for drama, Senna works well as pure narrative. Even those who can recite every fact and figure from the 88, 90 and 91 seasons will find themselves gripped by the drama that plays out on screen. Just take much of what’s said in between with a pinch of salt.

7/10

For a more balanced, and nearly as thrilling, tribute to Senna, take a look at this Top Gear film.

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Categories: Movies

One Comment on “[Movies] Review: Senna”

  1. June 9, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    Excellent, excellent review. i saw this film myself last night and found it, as I was expecting, thoroughly entertaining. But the treatment of Prost irked me, as Senna was easily as ruthless as him if not more. The barometer of this was my girlfriend, naive in the ways of F1 until now, saying ‘That Prost guy wasn’t very nice, was he?’
    The problem is that the label ‘made with the full co-operation of the Senna family’ is both a boon in terms of authenticity but stands in the way of the full picture being painted.
    Senna had many obvious qualities but he was no saint. He was only human

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