Judge Steve Power once blew Ayrton Senna off the track, but it was on his Sega Genesis.
No fear, no limits, no equal.
"'78 I came to Europe for the first time to compete outside Brazil in
the World Championship. It was pure driving…pure racing. There wasn't any
politics. No money involved either. It was real racing."
Facts of the Case
Ayrton Senna hit the Formula One world like a storm. The young Brazilian made a name for himself by his third race, and in the decade that followed, he made friends, enemies, and a lasting impression on the sport, and the world. He was a folk hero in Brazil, and on May 1st, 1994, he would become a global legend. Senna follows the on and off track achievements of a man considered by many to be the greatest Formula One driver of all time.
Documentaries about celebrities or individual personalities often have a difficult time in endearing the subject to the masses. Sports documentaries in particular are often so narrowly focused on accomplishments or specific events, that they lose the humanity of their subject in a wave of hero worship, or they're mired in the sport the subject made his mark in, narrowing their appeal. Senna has no such issues; from the opening moments, this is a study of Ayrton Senna, as a very human, endearing personality, not a checklist of his accomplishments, nor a treatise on Formula One.
The approach taken by the filmmakers was to find as much "in the moment" footage as is possible, and in a world so scrutinized and picked over as Formula One, there was no shortage of material to mine from. Senna unfolds more like fly on the wall drama than your traditional documentary. The director and editors wisely shied away from talking heads or retrospective reflection, choosing instead to feature interviewees as narrators on the action, and wherever possible, they used the material mined from Formula One's extensive archives rather than new material. This approach keeps the film from devolving into misty eyed recollections, and serves as a more truthful lens. Senna's feud with Frenchman Alain Prost gets the lion's share of the middle act, and while there is certainly darkness there, what I feared would be an overtly theatrical approach, turning Prost into a mustache-twirling villain, never quite materializes, and instead we're shown two very different, very passionate personalities, who happen to butt heads. We're also shown that Senna wasn't infallible. That said, in a sport where passions run very high, and egos clash like waves on rocks, Senna, more often than not, regained his composure, and was a tranquil force. Whatever his human faults, be it pride, ambition, or recklessness, Ayrton Senna was a true master of his craft, and an admirable and electrifying person.
What amazes me the most is the way in which the documentary shows instead of tells. We are along for the ride from the get go, there are no reenactments or breaks in the tale; this is Ayrton's life as real, three act drama, complete with all of the ups, downs and surprises. The footage the filmmakers have gathered is breathtaking, from in-car film footage to VHS home movies, and even cinematic 35mm film stock, and it all serves to build a bigger picture and present events with a heightened sense of drama. There are intense moments in Senna, but the final sequence set on a sunny Sunday at Imola in May of 1994, is truly a pulse quickening, heart-pounding moment. The emotion is only ratcheted further by an incredible score provided by Antonio Pinto. This is a cinematic film, Narrative drama filtered through reality, a documentary more at home on a theatre screen than on the History Channel or ESPN. It is a wonderful thing to behold.
Arc Entertainment's DVD is also a top drawer effort. When you're dealing with footage from such varying sources, quality is always going to be up and down, but with Senna, every effort looks to have been made to get each individual source as good looking as could be expected. Commercial filmmakers often had cameras rolling for race sponsors to cut into advertising, and much of this footage is breathtaking to watch. Audio also varies by source, but every effort has been maintained to deliver as consistent a film as is possible. Never once did an audio or video hiccup pull me out of the film, this is as good a presentation as anyone could reasonably expect.
The bonus material is slim, included are several interviews which were mostly mined for voice overs in the finished product. They're interesting enough for F1 die-hards, but there's no indication of who it is that's talking at any given time, and a few of the interviewees were non-English speakers, and from what I could find, there are no subtitles in the bonus interviews. The filmmaker's commentary however, is a must! Director Asif Kapadia is joined by producer, James Gay-Rees , and writer Manish Panday, and it's here that the chips start to fall into place for the real F1 fans. This informative commentary is an easy listen, as these three are pretty charismatic personalities, and it really fills in the details on the more technical side of the sport, and on how events displayed in the film impacted the F1 scene, and moreover, how they affected Senna himself. In a film so tightly focused on the man himself, this is a very welcomed perspective, and it complements the film perfectly.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As a study of Ayrton Senna that was endorsed by his family, it's easily possible that the film could have devolved into simple one sided back-patting or weepy recollection. While that certainly isn't entirely the case here, there are instances where we get a generally accurate, though not all encompassing version of events. While the director doesn't shy away from portraying Ayrton in a negative light when his life on or off the track called for it, some of Ayrton's less than benevolent actions on the track are glossed over. Because of this, other personalities, most notably Alain Prost certainly come across as more villainous then they probably should. More baffling are some of the omissions: Senna was in talks to become the chairman of a reincarnated "Grand Prix Driver's Association," an organization focused on driver safety in the sport, right up to the very day on which his life tragically ended.
Many followers of F1 are as passionate about Ayrton Senna as Football fans are of Jerry Rice, or Hockey fans of Wayne Gretzky. I had Ayrton Senna's Monaco GP II for the Sega Genesis, I knew who he was, and was pretty well versed in the motorsport, and it must be said, there wasn't a lot presented here that longtime F1 followers wouldn't know or aren't aware of. So if you're coming into this knowing your Schumacher from your Mansell, there's won't be a whole lot of surprises. This film isn't really made for the F1 hardcore, though the commentary does alleviate that somewhat, and due to the omissions in the tale that's told it plays out more like a "crib notes" version for the non-initiates. This film will not make you an F1 expert, nor an Ayrton Senna scholar, but that really isn't the intent, so I'm not going to subtract points because of it.
One final note: The upcoming Blu-Ray edition of Senna also contains an extended cut of the feature that runs about an hour longer! I haven't seen the longer cut, so I can't endorse it, but it is coming.
Senna is quite simply an astounding production that not only celebrates the career of a fallen hero, but his life and philosophies as well. As a documentary, it's a captivating effort, whether you know which side of a Formula One racer is the front or not.
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