• Senna - Review

A portrait of a sporting icon

Martin Williamson June 2, 2011
Ayrton Senna ahead of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix © Getty Images
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A journalist in the USA recently gave Senna a glowing review but added the caveat that it would not be successful because Formula One fans knew the story and wouldn't want to sit through it all again. Aside from underestimating followers of the sport, it ignores the fact that this is a brilliant piece of film-making that is likely to appeal to a much wider audience.

In short, the film is a rapid journey through Ayrton Senna's life, from his early days karting in Britain through to his tragically early death at Imola in 1994. But that description hardly scratches the surface. And don't think this is a biography - it's more of an all-too-brief insight into what made the man tick.

The producers ploughed through more than 15,000 hours of film - from television broadcasts to previously unseen private or Ecclestone-controlled footage - and somehow managed to edit it down to around 90 minutes. The initial reaction at the end is to long to see more, and inevitably there will be gripes from enthusiasts about what has not been included, but this was never meant to be a blow-by-blow history of Senna's career, rather a portrait of a sporting icon. It is that approach which takes this beyond being a sports film and deserves to propel it into the mainstream.

Even so, there are scenes which will enthral even hardcore Formula One enthusiasts, such as the drivers' meetings and the stand-off with the autocratic boss of the sport, Jean-Marie Balestre.

Balestre, a man tainted by association with the Nazis in the war, comes across as a genuine villain whose attitude to the drivers is, on his more amenable days, arrogant. He is also woefully biased. His treatment of Senna after the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix was almost criminal, and yet in their exchanges it is Senna, passionate but spot on, who comes across as his intellectual superior.

Inevitably, a fair amount of time is spent on the Senna-Alain Prost partnership which was to become a deeply bitter rivalry. Prost comes across as mechanical - no surprise there - but you can't help but feel his attitude arose because he was aware that he was confronting a man who mere mortals could not tame. Their coldness was also because they were such fundamentally different characters. But this is not a hagiographic portrait of Senna - it shows his warts as well as his humour, brilliance and little-known generosity.

What will surprise both enthusiast and casual observer is that the footage from inside the car, especially at Monaco, leaves you gasping. We are so used to slick shots from within modern F1 cars on TV, and yet the flickering, grainy shots from on board Senna's cars are somehow far more dramatic, conveying a real sense of the madness of driving through Monaco's streets at close to 200mph. For those moments alone, this needs to be seen on the big screen.

Unsurprisingly, the conclusion at Imola looms large as the film nears its end. It is expertly handled - no sentimentality or mawkishness - and yet still has the capacity to move.

The insights into the man from a select number of friends, family and rivals, add to the colour. But where the director really succeeds is by avoiding showing endless talking heads so beloved by budget TV documentary makers the world over - an approach one of his co-producers initially thought mad but subsequently described as "inspired". The contributions are restricted to voiceovers, and as a result the film moves along at a rapid pace and not a second is wasted.

This is not only the best film on Formula One. It is one of the best sports films. And quite possibly the best film of the year.