Senna (2011) – life on the edge, and over it

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I haven’t always been an F1 fan. There was a time when the sport came on TV and I, too, rolled my eyes at the very idea of watching toy cars go round and round in circles for two hours. But then I started working with a group of people who were really into the sport, and gradually I succumbed. I remember the season that I became a full-time, devoted follower of the sport.

Unfortunately, that season was 1994.

By then I’d missed a lot of the glory days of the sport that are captured in this astonishing new documentary on the life of three-time F1 world champion Ayrton Senna – his rise to stardom, his legendary feud with Alain Prost; I’d even missed Nigel Mansell becoming champion in 1992 then being replaced at Williams F1 by Alain Prost for one final title-winning year of his own. After Prost retired, Senna then moved to Williams, having been at McLaren – team and driver in a comparative slump for the last couple of years after their glory days – and at the time I can’t say I knew that much about Senna other than “former champion, probably past his prime.”

This new film is like a time machine every bit as good as the Tardis, allowing both those who remember and those who came to the sport too late (or not at all) to actually return to and relive those earlier golden years through an astonishing collection of contemporary footage. It’s so real, vivid and immediate that you’ll forget you’re watching events from over 20 years ago and become immersed in the battles, defeats and triumphs of people who seem very real and alive in front of you: the decision to use no “face to face interview” footage just removes you from the realm of documentary and puts you unshakeably in the moment.

Having heard so many people rhapsodise about this film for the last six months (as the makers tried to secure a mainstream international cinema release for it) I was if honest a little underwhelmed for the first section, which seemed like a perfectly decent but straightforward documentary on the life and times of a young Brazilian racing driver who came to Europe to make his name.

But where the film suddenly kicks in and becomes something quite exhilarating and extraordinary is when Senna arrives at McLaren as a team mate for Prost, and the personalities suddenly electrify and sparks fly off the screen: not just Senna and Prost, but the team boss Ron Dennis and most of all the astonishing president of the sport’s ruling body (the FIA), Jean-Marie Balestre, who comes over as such a staggering monster that he makes Darth Vader look too touchy-feely to ever dress in black again.

Senna’s battles with the “establishment” represented by Prost and Balestre absolutely transfix, and together with footage from the private drivers’ pre-race meetings (something that to my knowledge has never been aired before now) this middle section of the film is utterly compelling, as good as any drama you’ll see on film this year and surely good enough to be a stand-alone film in its own right.

But it’s also interspersed with character moments that show Senna the man – with his family and friends, talking about his motivations: he was very much driven by his faith, something that Prost regarded as dangerous as he felt that it made Senna heedless of the danger to himself and others on the track because of his faith in God. The film also expertly shows what he meant to the people of Brazil, and indeed what Brazil meant to Senna in turn: the sequence where he wins the Brazilian Grand Prix at last, what it means to him, and its aftermath is quite extraordinary.

Strangely – but intentionally, and effectively – after all this careful build up, the film then abruptly skims over 1992 and 1993 in a matter of minutes; so much so that the arrival of the caption “San Marino, Imola – April 29, 1994” catches you off guard. You thought you’d be ready for this moment when it came, but it turns out that you’re really not. Your stomach knots and your eyes tear up a little – at least, mine did. The director slows the pace, so that where whole seasons went by before, now a day takes even longer. That slow pace conveys the sense of dread and nightmare, and the film weighs heavy with sign and portent.

I remember watching that weekend all too well. I’ve never forgotten that the weekend claimed the life of Roland Ratzenberger, and came close to killing JJ Lehto, Pedro Lamy and Rubens Barrichello as well. Even though I knew the path that the film was now irrevocably on, I still wanted more than anything for it to stop. I wanted Senna to make a different decision: to decide that no, he wouldn’t race that day after all. But of course there was never any doubt – Aryton Senna could never have made any other decision other than to race and the film conveys this beautifully, with all its tragic consequences. And when the race finally got underway and it cuts back to in-car footage of a flying lap from Senna, it was unbearable.

When the caption at the end came up saying that after the Imola weekend, Professor Sid Watkins was put in charge of improving F1 safety and that “since then, no driver has been killed” I involuntarily reached out and touched the nearest wooden surface I could find. Because for any F1 fan, no one will ever want to see the events of Imola 1994 repeated.

Will the film appeal to a non-F1 fan? I think it will, unless the person is actively and passionately anti-F1, in the same way that my feelings about boxing mean I can’t bear to watch Raging Bull let alone Rocky regardless of their merits as films. I honestly think that this film – Senna – is such a strong narrative and character study that it will at least be readily accessible to the average non-fan, but then I’m probably not the right person to ask as I’m so much in the F1 fan camp these days.

But certainly to the F1 fan, this is quite something; quite probably the best film of the sport you’ll ever see, with stunning contemporary archive footage. It’s arguably one of the best and most powerful movies, period. I thought it remarkable, and really hope that it makes a decent showing at the box office and that more people are connected with one of sport’s – and life’s – genuine all-time personalities, heroes and icons as a result.

It’s extraordinary that one of Senna’s most heroic moments – when he stops his car mid-race, leaps out into the path of an oncoming F1 car in order to go to the aid of the stricken Erik Comas whose wrecked car is lying across the track at Spa in 1992, a moment of pure humanity and heroism – is included here only as an jaw-dropping piece of unexplained footage over the end credits, such is the amazing story of Senna’s life. Comas’ own role in the Imola weekend is excised altogether (it would have detracted from the focus) but was just one more shocking, tragic dimension to that dreadful day.

It’s the first time in nearly a decade that I’ve seen a film on its opening day; and I can’t remember the last time than I stayed in my seat until the very end, right until the end credits had finished.

But as far as I can recall, it’s the only time that I’ve left the cinema and started walking home and found it almost impossible not to burst into tears on the spot.

2 thoughts on “Senna (2011) – life on the edge, and over it

    Colin Sweetman said:
    June 3, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Excellent, concise, emotional and erudite review. Thank you Andrew. Now I have to see this film.

    Col.

    andrewlewin responded:
    June 3, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Trust me, you really do – you won’t be sorry!

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