“Senna” movie: an F1 Fanatic’s opinion

Guest article

Here in Britain we won’t get to see “Senna” – the film documentary on the life of Ayrton Senna – until June next year.

The film has already opened in Japan and is arriving in Brazil at present. F1 Fanatic reader Robert York (who posts as Yukirin Boy) has seen the film in Tokyo and wrote in to share his verdict on the movie:

Update: Manish Pandey, the writer of “Senna”, responds to Robert in the comments.

First, I think anyone who who enjoys motor racing would enjoy the movie.

The film, as I think you are aware is a collection of interviews with Senna and other footage, most of which we haven’t seen before and interspersed with some great film of some of the bigger races in Senna’s career. Seeing 1980s or 1990s in-car footage on a big screen is fantastic.

Compared to today’s in-car shots the quality is obviously poorer but, whether it is the screen size or the much greater amount of movement of the car it is raw, dramatic and much more special.

The story of Senna’s career is basically told by Ayrton himself. The film gives a pretty straight narrative from F1 debut, to the rivalry between him and Alain Prost at McLaren to Imola 1994 with little diversion, which is a shame.

There is a big jump from karting straight to F1, which disappointingly for a English fan of motor racing, misses out the British F3 championship of 1983 and the battle with
Martin Brundle.

Also the apparent rivalry with Nelson Piquet, the early spats with Nigel Mansell along with his friendship with Gerhard Berger for instance are all pruned from the plot. However, to make the film a reasonable length, not everything can be included – even if a F1 fan would like it to.

There are voiceover interviews and stories from other various important people in Ayrton’s career – including Prost – and family members too which add some further insight into his character and what made him special.

The largest part of the film is about the 1988 -1990 McLaren Senna/Prost rivalry. While Prost is not portrayed in as fair a way as he deserves, he is not made out to be the total villain. That is reserved for FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre.

After 1990 the film makes another frustrating leap, skipping fairly quickly through to 1994 and the crash. Watching the Imola weekend unfold is very disturbing, with much unseen footage of practice and Japanese TV footage (for me, Imola 1994 was the first F1 race I watched on Japanese TV).

It was a worthwhile film and gave insight and lighter moments to laugh and reminisce with fondness along with tears and being sent back to May 1st, 1994.

The film is about 90 minutes long and definitely worth the trip to the nearest cinema you can watch it at when it opens.

Something that struck me at the end was after the credits and the lights went up there was no chatter from the full house, everyone was absolutely silent, not a sound, until they were back into the noise and bustle of Tokyo streets.
Robert York

There’s more information about the film on publisher Working Title’s website and you can follow writer Manish Pandey on Twitter.

If you’ve been to see “Senna” already, share your opinion on it in the comments.

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78 comments on “Senna” movie: an F1 Fanatic’s opinion

  1. Hairs (@hairs) said on 5th June 2011, 21:51

    Well I watched Senna today, and most of the Murray Walker documentary tonight. I really can’t make up my mind, so I’ve decided to do score it 3 ways.

    What’s good:
    The film clips along very well – when it’s skipping forward, it does feel like it’s doing so for the right reasons. They were never going to fit anything in. The footage they’ve got hold of is incredible, and they’ve judged its use well. Arguments about which race was skipped, and which part of his career they focussed on are fairly pointless – they got the grist of his career spot on. It was emotional at times, and interesting to hear some of the “never before seen” moments and garage footage.

    Having said that, I both enjoyed, and didn’t enjoy the film? Why? Because it really felt like a hagiography. Rarely, I read up on the film before going to see it, which I try and avoid generally as the less you know going in, the more you get out of the experience. This time, I don’t think it affected my viewing, for the simple reason that as an F1 fan, and someone who grew up watching F1 when Senna was at his height, I don’t think the film showed me anything I didn’t already know – several times over.

    What I don’t understand is the commentators who have said Prost needn’t worry about his portrayal in the film. The filmmakers have been fairly balanced in their portrayal of him, I’d say. Where they haven’t been is in their portrayal of Senna. Throughout the whole “rivalry” section, Senna is portrayed as the inspirational, naive, innocent prodigy, who was the sad victim of Prost’s guile and Baelestre’s corruption, both of whom were motivated by an inability to beat Senna on pace. (Senna’s 7 victories are lauded, but who won the other races isn’t even mentioned, as though Prost was only capable of being gifted a victory, which is farcically not the case.) In the end, this makes Prost look unmitigatedly bad, and Senna nothing more than a hapless victim who reacted to bad circumstances. There’s never a sense of him being portrayed in a rounded guise as Brundle famously commented: “Senna would put you in a position where you’d have to decided if you wanted to crash or not”. Prost’s failings as a competitive racing driver are presented in glorious slow-mo technicolour (metaphor alert, for those about to pull me up on camera angles) whereas Senna’s are barely addressed at all, apart from in the Stewart interview where it is pointed out to him he’s been in more “touches” than the other world champions combined, to which his famous response was “If you no longer go for a gap, you are no longer a racing driver.” The conclusion from that is that everyone assumes that Senna’s position – chastising other drivers for not having the stones to do what he does is the “correct” one. The alternative that Stewart was clearly trying to get at is this: Maybe sometimes there was never a gap there in the first place, and other guys were able to win races, and championships, and had the stones to know that line and when it wasn’t to be crossed. Senna crossed that line all the time. That didn’t make him a better driver, just a more reckless one, and one who was prepared not just to make reckless choices for himself, but to force that on other drivers too. He could have been just as fast, and just as successful, without putting people in that situation. But again, that’s only presented in the context of Prost whining about getting beaten “He thinks he can’t die”, as though covering up for his lack of talent compared to Senna. I don’t buy it.

    The most egregious omission, however, is at the end. The rivalry of Prost and Senna takes up a large chunk of the film. We leave it with the drivers not speaking, and Prost (childishly and petulantly, as presented here) having a contractual statement that Senna was not to be employed as his team-mate. Yet at the end, Prost is crossing himself at the funeral, is carrying the coffin, and is a trustee of Senna’s foundation. HOW? WHY? What changed? Errrrrrr…….. total blank silence, nothing, no information, no interview, nada. Nothing. There is literally nothing in the film that indicates there was a turning point, what might have happened between them, what anybody might have thought, nothing. Just a cut from “I’m not playing if he’s on the team” to “Deep respect”. What was the point of showing that rivalry, if you weren’t going to address what happened after it? There’s only one half of the story there. That’s this film’s unforgivable failing, and what turfs it out of the realm of documentary and into the world of fandom.

    There’s a good film in here. It works well. It’s done with passion and flair. But it’s no documentary. So my conclusion is this:
    As a fan-film made by a senna fanatic: 5 stars.
    As a film for the F1 fan (me): 4 stars (mostly for the footage, which only goes to show that FOM should get that archive working).
    As a film for the casual fan: 3 stars (I don’t know a non-fan that’s seen it and have no idea what they’d get out of it, to be honest.) It’d score higher as a TV movie, but I don’t think it’s a cinema experience for the casual viewer.
    As a documentary (me when I’m not watching F1): 0. Just not balanced, nothing new or interesting, nothing to learn.

    • Thank you Hairs for your honest view. This is what you don’t get everywhere. Everyone seems to be enamoured by the movie. This villainous portrayal of Prost and the emphasis on their rivalry is something I’ve seen, read about and heard a million times. Apart from rare footage I don’t think there’s anything new or groundbreaking about this.

      On the other hand we need something that gives fresh insight on the other multiple world champions of the time – Prost and Piquet. That would be something groundbreaking, not a Senna make-people-cry film. I’m quoting a comment I made in response to an old F1Fanatic article in 2007 where Keith talked about a book on Prost:

      “With the umpteenth Senna-related work now doing the rounds, what you said back then makes sense Keith. In fact I’m tired of so much emotionalism (don’t know if such a
      word exists) attached to Senna.

      OK he was an out-of-this-world driver, exceptionally talented and way above the rest, but it’s time something is done about the other great drivers of the time particularly Prost and Piquet – the multiple champions. I consider Prost and Piquet among the best drivers of all time and their lack of charisma or basic manners (in
      the case of Piquet during the Mansell rivalry) only makes them unique and larger than life.

      I wish I had the resources to tell the world about Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet. Personally, doing something like that would give me far more satisfaction than
      basically telling the already told and retold emotional Senna stories. I’m not saying this to discredit the work of Manish Pandey and his team – they’ve done a
      sterling job. But we’ve got to move on.”

      Finally, I’m just not comfortable with one Mr. Ron Dennis speaking about this movie and the greatness of Senna, et al. I consider Dennis one of the most villainous characters ever to enter Formula 1. If I like McLaren now it is because he has left and the level-headed Martin Whitmarsh has taken over.

      Dennis back then remarked about Senna taking out Prost at Suzuka in 1990 as “rough justice.” I can’t understand how an action that potentially endangered the lives of Prost, other competitors and spectators can be termed “justice.”

      That’s why I don’t like Ron at all. He’s done a lot for the team, but character-wise he’s a politically minded cutthroat to say the least.

      I’m never happy when emotions and prejudice replace sound judgement. But that is basically what this film and most of the opinions on it are.

  2. Hairs (@hairs) said on 5th June 2011, 23:17

    Part 2: (I warned you there were 3 parts)

    Non-filmaking bits I thoroughly enjoyed:
    All the 80’s clothes. God the 80’s was a wasteland of bad taste and colourblindness. His taste in swimwear did him no favours at all. Hilarious.
    The Christmas TV programme where he gets kissed. I thought someone had snuck a bit of The Fast Show into the footage. I seriously expected them to cut from the guy in the bumblebee outfit to Paoula Fish and someone saying “Inflaytion” (will make no sense to non-UK viewers of less than a certain vintage).
    Selina Scott: Blonde amazon woman blushing at the charms of a small frenchman with a broken nose. Fascinating stuff.
    In all that time, why did he never sport a flattering haircut? Surely one of the bimbos that hang around racing drivers could have pointed it out to him. You’d never have caught James Hunt with a dorky schoolboy haircut in a million years.

  3. Hairs (@hairs) said on 5th June 2011, 23:34

    Part 3: Murray Walker documentary.

    Here’s a man I spent more time watching than Senna and who I’ve heard other people talk *about* a lot more than Senna. Yet the makers still told (or showed me) things I hadn’t heard or known. What I did know, was presented with the spirit of the man well on display. Great work, but as usual BBC NI have the great idea that their “local interest” programming takes precedence so I had to tune in a different satellite channel to watch it. I hate regional BBC programming with the intensity of a thousand suns.

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