Should I Watch..? Senna
What's the big deal?
Senna is a documentary film released in 2010 which follows the life, career and death of Brazilian motor racing legend Ayrton Senna. Directed by British film maker Asif Kapadia, the film focuses on his time in Formula One where his aggressive driving style brought him legions of fans, three World Championships and a number of critics who claimed he was too dangerous for the sport. The film relies on a mix of archive footage and interviews with those who knew him as well as previously unseen home video footage of Ayrton provided by his family. The film was critically acclaimed when it was released and won several awards for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival and the BAFTAS.
What's it about?
For anyone unaware of who he was, Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian racing driver who displayed extreme levels of talent while racing karts at the age of 13. After he left his hometown of São Paulo and moved to Britain, Senna moved quickly through the ranks before entering Formula One in the 1984 season. After spending a couple of years driving for teams like Lotus and Toleman, McLaren team boss Ron Dennis hired Senna as a driver and paired him with Alain Prost, a French driver known as the Professor due to his more clinical approach to the sport. It was a move that would change Senna's career forever.
Despite his natural talent and flair for aggressive driving, Senna's ultra-competitive nature put him at odds with Prost who disagreed with Senna's technique. Senna also clashed with the head of the sport's governing body Jean-Marie Balestre who Senna believed supported his countryman Prost when it came to making key decisions. Nevertheless, Senna was extraordinarily successful by winning the Formula One World Championship titles in 1988, 1990 and 1991. After splitting from McLaren and moving to Williams in 1994, Senna's fate was sealed at the infamous 1994 Imola Grand Prix where Senna's illustrious career would be brought to a shattering halt...
Himself (archive footage)
Professor Sid Watkins
Release Date (UK)
3rd June, 2011
Biography, Documentary, Sport
What's to like?
Even non-fans of motor racing will enjoy this energetic documentary which is a tribute to his talents on the track and his personality off it. Covering most aspects of his life, it is apparent that Senna was a force of nature who enjoyed living his life as well as giving back to those back home less fortunate than him. Indeed, as a fan of Formula One, I vividly remember watching Senna drive - risking everything to finish first, in the wet or dry. In a sport often bereft of true personalities, Senna was the undoubted exception.
Yet the film pulls no punches when it comes to highlighting how dangerous the sport was and still is. Senna pushed for greater safety features in the cars and at race circuits, a program he never lived to see fulfil its promises. After the tragic events at Imola (which the film covers in some detail), Formula One introduced dozens of safety features which prevented any further such disaster for over twenty years until the sad passing of Jules Bianchi in 2015. But the perils of the past are shocking to witness today - the images of burning cars and lifeless bodies twisted on the tarmac underline the risks these men faced at every race.
- When he was hired as director, Kapadia had no previous knowledge about Formula One or Ayrton Senna. This was a deliberate ploy of the producers because Kapadia could look at the footage objectively.
- This was the first film made with both the cooperation of Ayrton's family as well as the organisation Formula One Management which allowed unprecedented access to its vast archive of material of the sport.
- The father of co-producer James Gay-Rees worked at John Player Special in 1985. The cigarette company was one of Lotus Racing's sponsors at the time Ayrton was driving for them in the distinctive black and gold livery.
What's not to like?
The film unashamedly paints Ayrton in a favourable light with little contribution from his rivals on and off the circuit. While Prost himself appears in the film and talks openly about healing the rift with Ayrton shortly before his death, you hear nothing from him when Senna covers their on-track rivalry. The lack of any sort of commentary or narration robs the film of a sense of meaning, resulting in a curious sense of the film not really asking the right questions. The contradiction of a hyper-aggressive driver campaigning for stricter safety regulations is never examined and neither is Ayrton's early life or relationship with his family. Maybe home video footage was considered too boring next to noisy cars pounding around a circuit.
I would also have liked to see captions appear for the numerous talking heads that appear - a lot of people featured were journalists of people working behind the scenes like Sid Watkins. And even with my interest in Formula One, I struggled to identify most of them and had to work out who they were for myself. Well, apart from Prost whose Gallic nose I could spot a mile off. Lastly, the footage of Senna's fateful final crash brought the memories of watching it live flooding back and brought on a cold sense of fear and terror. It is difficult to watch, to say the least.
Should I watch it?
Senna isn't a long list of achievements rattled off in a professional manner but an emotional look back at arguably one of the greatest talents the sport has ever seen and his impact on and off the track. His passion for speed and glory was matched only by the affection those around Ayrton held him in. Personally, the fact that drivers like Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher have repeatedly stated that Senna was the best driver in history speaks volumes. Senna might not be the perfect documentary but it's one that even non-fans of the sport will appreciate.
Great For: motor racing fans, Brazilians, fans of Ayrton Senna
Not So Great For: nervous viewers, the squeamish
What else should I watch?
Kapadia's follow-up was the much anticipated Amy which looked at the life, career and decline of British soul singer Amy Winehouse. Critics hailed the film as a tragic masterpiece, highlighting the toxic combination of talent, fame and addiction. However, Winehouse's family have distanced themselves from it which either means a) they don't agree with the film's version of events or b) they themselves are shown in a bad light.
Documentaries usually have their own agenda and especially when based on real people who, one suspects, have had a hand in the editing suite. Tyson examines the often controversial boxer through direct interviews with the man himself and not once does it ask for an alternative point of view. And almost all of Michael Moore's films have a blatant political bias, whether it's for greater gun control in Bowling For Columbine or the attempted downfall of George W Bush's presidency in Fahrenheit 9/11.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox