Senna – Review – Modern Greats #3

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Hero or villain? Fearless or dangerous? Competitor or cheat? Activist or patriot? Martyr or winner? Lucky or unlucky? Myth or legend? Ecstasy or tragedy? There’s no single word or simple way to describe the persona of racer Ayrton Senna.

He was first and foremost a devoted F1 driver, fiercely passionate about winning and pursuing his dream. But he was also embroiled in the sport’s politics, heavily involved in charity, engaged in heated rivalry and worshipped nationally. 2010’s Senna documents the troubles, trials, trophies and tragedies of his brief but powerful career (and life), and the impact it had on his many followers.

Mark Kermode recently posted a video blog discussing surprisingly engaging documentaries given their topics of interest. F1 may not be as niche as video game high scores (The King of Kong) or font discussions (Helvetica), but nonetheless it is divided into fanatics, admirers and outsiders all the same. I want to love F1, but I’ve never been able to. And yet despite being sorely lacking in the subject and sport, not once did I feel unknowing or outcast. One of the real triumphs of Asif Kapadia’s documentary is the coupling of accessibility to the masses whilst remaining suitably stimulating for seasoned veterans.

The second major achievement is the way it tells the story. Instead of reverting to talking heads ad infinitum, Senna uses an abundance of archive clips and other footage which it is fortunate enough to be blessed with. Whilst this option isn’t available to many other docs and directors, Kapadia and his team should be lauded for not only accessing and processing this information, but for also using it so smartly and thus enabling the film to flourish. Presenting the interviews as voiceovers allows uninterrupted coverage of an intimate fiction-film-like unfolding story which – as the subject matter necessitates – moves at a rapid pace.

After initial footage of his early go-karting days, Senna soon becomes a character to contend with after his astonishing breakthrough in Monaco at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. He bursts onto the scene with an incredible feat of driving in the rain; racing conditions which he would go on to master convincingly whilst others struggled. However in true underdog fashion his attempts to seal it with victory are stopped short, and like a well-plotted novel it was his future nemesis Alain Prost who would do so.

The documentary is an unashamedly one-sided chronicling of events with Ayrton as saint and Alain as sinner, although the absence of any Prost interviews or input is perhaps the film’s greatest failing. They are compared and contrasted: Ayrton Senna, like Renly Barratheon, is the people’s champion whilst Prost takes on the unyielding, harsh demeanour of Stannis. Senna is shown to be fast and reckless, even refusing to slow down (to his detriment, since he crashes) with a 55-second lead over Prost at one point, whereas Prost is far more methodical and pragmatic.

Their rivalry would turn heated and, extraordinarily, would be decided at the Japanese Grand Prix under dubious and seemingly unethical circumstances for two years running. In 1989 they come together when Senna needs to win to have a chance at his second World Championship, having won his first the previous year. Prost appears to intentionally remove both of them from the race, although the drama (and politics) continues to unfold. There is an almost exact replication of this incident in vice versa the following year, with Ayrton this time appearing to take out Alain. These incidents cause their conflict to escalate ever further, although it’s away from the track that controversy reigns supreme.

The real villain of the piece might just be FIA President, Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre. The incidents in Japan open the floodgates for political controversy, and these unfold with us given an astonishing amount of access to such events. We watch fly-on-the-wall footage of drivers’ meeting, discussions and votes, as well as witnessing the arrogant and tyrannical rule of Balestre as he continues to clash with Senna. But Ayrton wasn’t prepared to bend over backwards for anybody, and neither did he want to slow down, or say “no”, or quit. It was this determined, daring attitude that would contribute heavily to his early death.

The heartbreaking final section of the film leads us ominously towards this moment, building on all of the foreshadowing that has come beforehand. We’re led uncomfortably towards it in Aytron Senna’s own point of view by means of his on-car camera. The moment itself seems scripted: despite the serious crash of fellow countryman Rubens Barrichello followed the next day with the unfortunate death of an amateur driver Roland Ratzenberger – both in qualifying – Senna decides to go ahead with the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. It would be his last race. Apart from the one severe blow to the head he remains otherwise untouched; a seemingly fated fatality. The Gods reclaiming one of their own.

At 34, Brazil’s hope and hero was snatched from the world. Formula One lost one of its truly treasured sons, and sport itself was left without one of its all-time icons. A country wept, as the staggering footage tracks the masses that line the streets to weep and applaud their never-forgotten champion and his untamed character. The LA Times has the number of mourners at an approximated 0.5 million; one of the largest ever in modern times. Why did his nature appeal to so many? Senna, suitably enough, appears to present the answer. The documentary matches up to the great man himself by exploring his true identity. If the aim of documentaries is to capture the truth, then nothing since the turn of the century has done it quite so profoundly as Senna has.

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