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At the time of his death, Ayrton Senna had accumulated an unfortunate (and not entirely undeserved) reputation as a bit of a crank: a loose-cannon in a sport which could scarcely accommodate one, at a time when Formula One still expected the odd track death now and then as nothing more than an unfortunate by-product, an unavoidable consequence to be accepted with weary equanimity. Senna very much became a maverick to avoid. He was the sport’s main agent of danger who spoke disconcertingly and vaguely about God and destiny and righteousness and entitlement and glory, a distant aspect about him, as though he were not really flying around the circuits at up to 200mph, and was instead halfway between his glossy McClaren chassis and somewhere deep within himself, entirely beholden to a questionable self-certainty.

And yet, the main achievement of this skilfully-spliced documentary is to put you at odds with querulous reasonings. You become deeply imbued with a vicarious, mystical yearning, a rather simplistic hero worshipping and, ultimately, a lot of the things you tend to excuse yourself of in straight fictional cinema: a belief in something that may well be openly ridiculous. Or: a belief in a belief, which is still rather knotty and undefined. Perhaps therein lies its allure.

Sticking with certainties for a moment: Senna was easily the most talented driver of his generation, the Maradona of motor racing, erratic but brilliant, prone to a level of focus that verged on hostility to other drivers, although there is no doubt as to his withering hostility towards Alain Prost, the unfortunate whipping boy of both this documentary and the reams of copy still written in the aftermath of Senna’s death on the wranglings, subterfuge and outright favouritism indulged on Prost by the odious, haughtily intolerant and openly dismissive Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre (who was the chief lawmaker of the sport back in the day and serves here as a Blatterish presence, a bumbling, shameless autocrat; Balestre and the prosaically adept Prost would openly embrace in and around the paddock and Prost played such a connection as much as he needed to).

Prost’s default mode: aloof, furtive detachment, proffering press conference blandishments and a sheen of airless professionalism. Senna offering a perfectly opposed counterpoint of charismatic reliance on sheer unvarnished skill and nascent, fatal reliance on ‘destiny’. The other drivers feared not only Senna’s unequalled brilliance behind the wheel but his increasingly reckless sense of entitlement, as the film emphasises.

The actual race footage is a little disconcerting; the cars were somewhat more susceptible to being thrown around at such speeds, and yet, such footage serves only to accompany the off-track footage, which is where our attention is most piqued. In other words, the interest here lies in talking head extrapolation and opinion rather than archive F1 selections, which feel slightly flat. This is a back-handed complement: the stuff that might be far less engaging is riveting enough to render the races themselves mere illustrative lip-service, on the whole. We are (well, I was) more eager to hear what people like Richard Williams had to say about this curious enigma, who I was always sure was playing mind games and offering a well-judged fathomless, inscrutable exterior rather than truly buying into a lot of the pseudo-mythical stuff. Not so, it seems.
In any case, the man clearly still haunts a lot of the participants here: ex-boss Ron Dennis seems indignantly, protectively perplexed at having had such a character on his hands, and for a man who often seems diligently largely unmoved by matters auspicious or no, he here seems bereft and unsure as to what on earth it was he was part of, but loyally so. He brushes off questions as to Senna’s implacability with a ‘Who are we to question?’ response which feels a little parental and quixotic.

Alain Prost is a haunted figure, protesting far too much as to his indifference and even pushing for slim-odds sympathy. He got the better of Senna often enough during their jousts but was never given his due, as he sees it, and is an embittered party-pooper that flings mud that could never stick. At times you wonder if he’s merely there to wax the Senna myth further agleam.

So what in the end can we draw from this? That Senna was a rare character indeed, following boundless talent into a seemingly inevitable oblivion who continues to exert a strange hold over his sport and all those still attempting to re-create something long gone. He endures for very simple reasons: he had immense talent and did not compromise. This was enough to evade, if not death, then at the very least lame, unblemished hagiography. That Asif Kapadia’s documentary captures him correctly, as uncatchable and largely immeasurable, but more fascinating for being so elusive, is a great achievement.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. July 26, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    It can also be found at her Meks Meanderings blog at http meksmeanderings.blogspot.com .I was lucky enough to get tickets to a preview to this film a few days before its UK release. It was at Cornerhouse Manchester and was supposed to be followed by a QA with the writer and director. Unfortunately the writer couldnt make it on the day. The director Asif Kapadia was great though..The film shows the life of Ayrton Senna as an F1 driver. This is told through film footage rather than interviews with the people who were there. The access they gained to footage was amazing. You get a very complete picture. The production had pitched their idea to Sennas family and gained their support. They had also gained the support of the sports supremo Bernie Ecclestone who gave them full access to the F1 footage archives. It seems a camera is following all aspects of F1 on race weekends. There is also footage of Senna from the family archives giving a picture of the man away from his job..The director says that once they had permission from the family and Bernie everyone else was on board too. There are parts of the film with voice-overs from friends family and colleagues but the story is mostly told as it happened..The film focuses mostly on Sennas rivalry with Alain Prost rather than his relationships with the other drivers he raced against. This we were told was down to time constraints. The first cut came in at 7 hours long! The complicated relationship with Prost is more than enough to fill one film. Were also shown glimpses of his relationship with Jean-Marie Balestre..The one reason you must see this film in a cinema is the in-car footage. Its the first time Ive ever had any idea what it must be like to travel like that. Its exciting awe-inspiring and gave me renewed respect for the skills of these men..This is a definitely not just a film for F1 fans. This is a well presented biography of a charismatic genius who happened to be a racing driver. F1 fans must see this in a cinema or forever kick themselves. Anyone who enjoys a good moving story should see it too..I had always thought of Senna as a brilliant but arrogant driver. This film made me think much more fondly of him. By simply showing the man himself..I cant wait to see how much more well get on the DVD. I hope its plenty more as it seems this wonderful film could have been 3 times as long.I really want to see some of the bits they had to sacrifice due to running time..Oh and by the way. Make sure you take some tissues with you…

  2. January 3, 2012 at 4:39 am

    I finally watched this one, Lee. I remember the first time I heard of Ayrton Senna. It was 1999 and I was living in Brazil. A Brazilian asked me who had the world’s largest funeral. I had no idea (still don’t), but I said maybe Princess Di or a Pope. I had not suffered such a look of dumbfounded indignation since I answered incorrectly to the question who was the first in flight (thus learning a lesson about Santos Dumont). Of course, my Brazilian friend said that Ayrton Senna had the largest funeral in the world.

    I’ve never followed F1, but I have loved learning about Ayrton Senna since that night, so this documentary was right up my alley. In particular, I liked all the things it didn’t show. It seemed to me very much on board with that simple hero worship you mention above, though it also captures it nicely. But, perhaps because of the angle, I was surprised there wasn’t more about the controversies in F1 at the time. Then again, perhaps best to keep that as the undercurrent than risk diluting what was very much a sort of eulogy. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

  3. January 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Senna was, even when I was very young and the drone of the Formula One cars (which meant very little to me then and means scarcely more now, in truth) filled the smoky living room of our house seemingly every Sunday, the ‘cool’ guy on the racetrack. My Dad, I recall, wasn’t keen (a big Ferrari fan) and considered Senna a bit of a nut. Which just made me like him more, of course. And I always considered Prost a haughty drudge, dull and efficient. And I was right! To an extent, anyway. I draw a parallel with Maradona in the review and I think that’s right: they’re both considered ‘a bit dodgy’ by many but just have this incredible allure; they’re icons that mean so much more than sport or national identity: it all gets a bit mystical. So I guess Kapadia has gone along that road and what a good decision. The exalted nature of it all, with the obvious mortal death looming, and then the spiritual crescendo that hits home as the credits roll and so on. Superb.

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