Senna film poster

If you follow Formula 1 online, it has been absolutely impossible to avoid the hype. Films about Formula 1 do not get made often. It is highly unusual for so much footage to have been prised out of Bernie Ecclestone. When you factor in that the film is about Ayrton Senna, a driver who has reached an almost legendary status, it was inevitable that this film would attract a lot of attention.

Moreover, the film has been met with near (although not quite) universal approval. Seasoned film critics and those with no interest in motorsport have lapped it up enthusiastically.

So it has been a painful wait. I was delighted to learn that it was being shown at my local cinema, so I took the first opportunity to watch it.

I found the film truly engrossing and hugely emotional. The story of Senna’s career — or at least one version of it — is very well told. Some of the footage, particularly of drivers’ briefings and the like, is absolutely astonishing.

Alain Prost

The film’s treatment of Alain Prost has come under a lot of scrutiny. It is said that Prost is cast as the villain of the film. I was relieved that his treatment was not as bad as I had feared.

I actually felt that Prost comes across quite well in the film — though this may be for ideological reasons, and that I already understand the Prost–Senna rivalry. It is easy to see why, in a film that celebrates Senna’s approach, others may feel that Prost’s alternative approach to racing does not come across so well.

In fairness to the filmmakers, I think it does illustrate that the frosty tensions between Senna and Prost had thawed in the final months of Senna’s life. We see Senna embracing Prost on the podium at the 1993 Australian Grand Prix, Prost’s reaction to Senna’s fatal crash from the TF1 commentary box and Prost as a pallbearer at Senna’s funeral. A caption at the film’s climax also displays the fact that Prost is a trustee of the Ayrton Senna Foundation.

Important details skipped

However, I do feel that the film does not get across just how controversial Ayrton Senna was. The only time it is really tackled is in a relatively brief clip of Jackie Stewart’s famous interrogation of Senna’s dangerous driving.

I was also disappointed in how little of Senna’s career is actually covered. The film skips straight from karting into F1, then practically fast-forwards to the Prost–Senna rivalry, which is clearly the meat of the film. Thereafter, the 1992 and 1993 seasons get the briefest look in. In the process, the championship victories of Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost are belittled, particularly through the skilful vilification of the Williams car.

After the film had finished, I felt like only a handful of incidents had been covered. I was left feeling that only a superficial account of Senna’s career had been presented.

I can fully understand why this is so. There is a limit to what Bernie Ecclestone will allow. So the filmmakers are left with the quandry of how to sum up an amazing driver’s entire career in the time it takes to complete just one grand prix.

Authentically inauthentic

I also found myself being annoyed by tiny details that I felt detracted from the authenticity of the film. For instance, almost all of the source footage must have been shot in 4:3, but the film is in a different aspect ratio, meaning that all of the footage is cropped. When much of the footage is blurry enough as it is, this doesn’t help.

A significant proportion of the film also contains a blurred-out Globo DOG, with a new one superimposed on top of it (presumably to meet the requirements of the Brazilian broadcaster). Then there are the mock TV captions that crop up throughout the film.

These are small details, but I found them irritating me. To me, they detract from the cinematic mood.

When I read about the edits that have been made to some of the footage, particularly the sound, my eyebrows were raised. “They managed to change it, so it’s very authentic,” says Manish Pandey. It reminds me of a line from the Pulp song Bad Cover Version: “Electronically reprocessed to give a more lifelike effect.”

Intense and emotional

Having said that, the film is no less gripping as a result of all these niggles. I felt the grin across my face as I watched Senna’s awesome driving in the Toleman and the Lotus. The events of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend are well-handled and emotional to watch.

However, here it does once again feel that certain events are rushed through. Rubens Barrichello and Roland Ratzenberger are both only briefly introduced before their crashes are shown. Not much time is reserved to dwell upon these events, even though Ratzenberger’s death was, for me, the most emotional part of the film to watch.

Summing up Senna

All-in-all, Senna is a brilliant, emotional film packed with extraorindary footage and with a well-constructed story. But the time constraint, and (let’s face it) the requirement to make a film that would be commercially successful, did leave me feeling as though only the tip of the iceberg was considered.

In fact, for me, the Top Gear feature from last year summed up exactly what Senna was all about in only 13 minutes. It outlines exactly what made Senna so different to other drivers, and was not afraid to investigate his controversial racing style while also underlining his parodoxical concern for safety.

The Senna film sets out to do something different. So in this respect I was slightly disappointed in the fact that the film is a celebration of Senna’s career, and not a thorough factual account of it. However, as a celebration of Senna’s career, it is difficult to imagine how this film could be improved, beyond being longer. I am eagerly anticipating the DVD release.

5 comments

  1. You’ve hit lots of nails on heads here, for me. ‘Celebration’ is the word I’d been searching for; as long as one approaches the film acknowledging that it’s a celebratory docu-drama, rather than a meticulous, unbiased documentary, I think it’s difficult to be disappointed with it.

  2. I had the pleasure to watch the film a couple of weeks ago and I have to say that I felt equally satisfied and dissappointed.
    After thinking of it, I have arrived to the conclusion that it is impossible to tell the story of Senna in 90 minutes. You have to choose to tell the story of the pilot, the person or the myth. The film tries to mix the three and it falls short in each of them. And that failure is absolutely normal. We, as F1 fans, could talk hours about his career, his driving, his dark side… I can even talk a lot of his last GP because I watched the whole weekend in the TV of my room. I remember clearly Ratzemberger’s death, because it was the first death I ever saw live on TV (sadly, more were to come). The way the film portrays the last moments of Senna brought some of my own memories back and I can say that I was really moved in the cinema.
    Thus, I cannot blame the director of any mistake. My conclusion is that the story of Senna is too big for a movie. As you pointed, that Tog Gear clip is enough to portray the pilot, but then again, can Senna be reduced to a pilot?
    I don’t think so.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Ponzonha, I like your take on it. Senna is a deep character, with many dimensions to his story. You are right that we F1 fans can talk endlessly about Senna as it is. A film will never do true justice to him. As such, I think the film does as good a job as can be expected.

  4. John Bergqvist

    There is an alternate, extended version, which is 2.5hrs (as opposed to 90mins), with the extra footage being extra (lengthy) parts of the interviews with all the people mentioned in the film (Ron Dennis, Prost, John Bisgano etc.) spliced in. I also feel that in the trailer, they mis-represented the “The best decision is my decision” quote, since in the film, Balestre then says “You haven’t heard my decision yet, and my decision is a vote, drivers only”, which he then does.

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