Wednesday, 30 May 2012


Most sport documentaries try to tell you the hero's life story. They begin long ago, with how he or she got that way, what they were like as a kid, or how an early childhood experience changed their life. In short, the movie's goal is to explain why they, and not somebody else, became a world-class competitor. The film Senna knows better. There are no simple answers to these questions. Certain individuals seem destined for great things. It is unclear what makes them special at so young an age besides their  intuition and drive.

There is no explaining to be had in this film. Rather, we follow Ayrton Senna's journey from a young bright-eyed Brazillian F1 driver to an experienced, hardened and grown man. In 100 minutes we can see him age. Despite his growth his love of competition was his undoing, dying suddenly in a race at age 34. Incredibly after 18 years he is still the most recent F1 fatality.

One comment about the filming style: while watching I was not fully aware that every scene in this film was derived from archive video footage. Its creators scoured the underworld of sports for unexpected shots taken throughout Senna's career. They fashioned these images into a linear portrait of the man. Only a handful of brief voice-overs provide comment on the action. The non-invasive approach leaves us with a feel of authenticity while the story's progression is still intuitive.

By avoiding any retrospective interviews we are left with an enigmatic portrait. Roger Ebert felt this meant the film lacked ambition
I wish it had tried for more. It is a competent TV sports doc, the sort you'd expect to see on ESPN. Unless you are a big fan of Senna or Formula One, I don't know why you'd want to pay first-run prices to see it. 
Why, he wonders, was Senna driven to race? What did he think? Yet such answers, were they so direct, would lack satisfaction. The film explains more than it leads on. Not by what is said, but by what is shown. Could the race car footage (shot inches from Senna's own point of view) act as a window into Senna's psychological world? To feel nothing during these scenes is not human. And consider Senna's first victory in Brazil. We are told during his lead with seven laps to go his gears failed him. The race was thought lost. Moments after winning through superhuman effort we watch his pained face as he is carried to his team. "Don't touch me", he warns. The victory has left him exhausted but he cries out to his father. They embrace despite Senna's obvious physical effort. There are quieter moments where body language (such as through the open rivalry with teammate Alain Prost) can deliver what could never be described. By watching these scenes on larger formats (than were ever before available) we will recognize and remember more than spoken words. And that is why we pay the first-run prices.

A final item: I had to share this voiceover as soon as I heard it. This is Senna describing what it was like to race in Monaco (a very windy course):
Suddenly I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension.
I'm a fan of that quote because it speaks volumes of how little control we have in the moment of deep competition. We train, and train some more, but the day of the race you have little say in what your body does. Whether it means victory, a season or lifetime best is irrelevant. The trinity in sports is the body, the conscious, and finally the subconscious; the part of your brain doing all the work. You are consciously aware that your feel, but do not negotiate, and push further. The subconscious, so much larger, overwhelms the senses. A good race is hard to remember because, in a way, you weren't quite there. Yet there's the footage to prove otherwise. Who was that man?


  1. Ayrton Senna was a genius behind the wheel - the undenyable politically biased landscape dictated by the FIA during his time (Proust was french, the FIA is french...) is an even greater testiment to his dedication and passion for the sport: fighting against their blatent disregard for sportsmanship and fair competition Ayrton was often on the wrong side of an unfair decision. Alain Proust did not deserve his four world championships, Senna deserved at least two of them.

    1. I felt out my depths here, but this doc helped with the essentials. Something I noticed is that Senna contradicts himself now and then. He was annoyed when other drivers in '89 had electronic suspension control. Next season, when computer suspension was banned, he complained equally about his car being too hard to control. I wonder if he could have chosen his battles better...?

  2. I loved the Senna movie, but I really like your insite on to why it is good, reasons that I was not consciously aware of at the time. As for seeing it on the big screen, all I can say is the in-car race video was worth the price of admission, and cured my multi-lane hghiway phobia for weeks. Love reading good movie reviews that add to my understanding of a film. keep it up.