Archive | June, 2011

Senna. If I have to force you to a cinema at gunpoint, I will

8 Jun

Last Saturday, I left a Soho cinema visibly exhausted and with no doubt in my mind that I had just experienced one of the greatest cinematic events of my life. “Senna”, on paper, is a documentary about an individual I know little about, and heavily features a sport I have very little interest in. I therefore have fears, that despite near perfect reviews across the board (the poster highlights the 5 stars given from both “Top Gear Magazine” and “Grazia”), ‘Senna’ will pass some people by for the reasons I have just mentioned. Here I want to briefly explain why this film left such a strong impression, and why I would take immense pleasure in hunting down and slaughtering anyone who may summarise it as “some film about that dead formula one guy”.

Perhaps the primary reason is the subject matter itself – Ayrton Senna was, based on the masses of footage the filmmakers have managed to acquire, an extraordinary personality. From the very beginning of his career in F1, Senna was a driver who performed feats that would drop the jaws of even motor racing dunces like myself. He won races with faulty gear boxes stuck on sixth gear, from crash positions which would prompt most drivers to walk from their car, and in perilously wet conditions where he would appear to glide even faster than usual where others would understandably show caution.

His love for pure racing and dislike of the politics behind it was apparent throughout, his wins fuelled by pure adrenaline and a firm belief that God would protect him rather than tactical manoeuvring . This put him at odds with Alain Prost, the French world champion – known as the ‘scientist’ by his peers, due to his extensive tactical preparation and his obsessive sticking to it on the track. Senna’s ongoing rivalry with Prost, who in racing and character terms was the exact opposite of Senna, provide the most exciting moments of the film.

Handsome Alain Prost

His personality and beliefs also put him at odds with the F1 men of power– a clash that resulted in the 1989 championship being taken away from him in highly suspicious circumstances. Ayrton Senna simply didn’t fit the mould of a formula one driver, especially when he went home to Brazil where he was seen by the public as a God. There is much footage of Brazilians expressing in no uncertain terms just how much they loved him and the love was very much mutual. His pain inducing efforts to eventually win his homecoming Brazilian Grand Prix and his ecstasy that followed shows just how much it meant to him and the country.

However, it is the filmmakers themselves that really make “Senna” an incredible cinematic spectacle instead of a bog standard TV biography. The scenes showing the races themselves are heart stopping as they accurately capture the break neck speed at which the cars are racing – something that F1 television coverage rarely gets across due to the wide or high camera angles often used. Senna’s battle with Prost (on and off the track) is detailed with all access, fly on the wall footage that is wonderfully put together – the behind the scenes meetings involving the drivers and the powers that be are often as tense as the races themselves. Senna’s life before his F1 career is mentioned but rarely touched upon, and all interviews are audio only – often giving the footage which they are played over more context and gravitas; your eyes never off the action.

Senna's crash

Where the acquired footage and skills in editing best come together however is at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix that ultimately claimed Senna’s life. A clip of fellow driver Roland Ratzenberger – killed a day before Senna on the same course – relaying fears about his control of the car to his engineers is extremely poignant. But knowing what waits for Senna as I watched him react to Ratzenberger’s crash and prepare for his own final race took this to another level of intensity. This intensity transformed to emotion as footage of Senna’s funeral is shown – the streets lined with countless devastated thousands outside the church, as his family, lovers, colleagues and his main rival Alan Prost approach his coffin to say farewell.

Funeral procession

To sum up, “Senna” brilliantly captures the spirit of Formula One’s brightest star with enough critical faculty to stop it from being an all round love in. It sufficiently, and subtlety, explains the nature of Formula One and its characters for even those, like me, who have little background knowledge. To really get the full effect, I think it is a film that has to be viewed in a cinema rather than at home and I can not express enough just how much you should do this. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.