“Senna” – the Ayrton Senna movie reviewed

F1 reviews

“Senna” opened in Japan two months ago but British fans will have to wait until June to see the film on big screen.

Luckily I had the chance to attend a private screening of the film in London yesterday where I also spoke to the film’s author and co-executive producer Manish Pandey.

In making “Senna” the producers had access to Formula One Management’s extensive video archive. That vast amount of material has been condensed into a film which lasts little longer than a Grand Prix.

I’m sure that, like myself, many F1 Fanatic readers would have been happy to watch a Lord of the Rings-style three-part epic. But exerting discipline over what to include and what to cut has clearly been to the film’s benefit, and not just in terms of making it suitable for a mainstream audience.

“Senna” tells the story of his life and F1 career through original footage, much of it never before seen. It avoids the dry documentary style of talking head interviews, using instead voice-overs from several contributors plus clips from television commentaries.

Thanks to this approach the film moves along rapidly, introducing Senna with his breakthrough performance at Monte-Carlo in 1984 and speeding through to the onset of his rivalry with Alain Prost in 1988.

Although the film has plenty to say about Senna’s character, his charitable work and, of course, his death, his bitter battle with Prost is the film’s principle focus.

Poster for "Senna" - The Ayrton Senna movie

While no one should underestimate the difficulty the producers had in choosing what to leave out of the film, the decision to skip over some events inevitably shapes the film’s view of the main figures.

Two important moments in the rising hostility between Senna and Prost are omitted. These are their wheel-to-wheel battle at Estoril in 1988 and the row that erupted over the restart at Imola in 1989.

Perhaps these weren’t thought significant enough to include, but putting them in might have helped to balance the film’s view of Senna, which verges on the saintly at times.

It is not Prost but FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre who is ultimately portrayed as the villain, and the glimpses of his heavy-handed and partisan interventions do him no favours at all.

As well as these controversial episodes there are moments of great humour, none of which I’m going to spoil by giving them away here.

For a lifelong Formula 1 fan who discovered the sport at the height of the Senna-Prost war, the film is a treasure trove of fascinating moments from a great era.

Telling a story which most people already know the end of presents problems of its own. Watching “Senna”, you know what’s coming – and you don’t want it to get there. You just want to watch the black-and-gold Lotus dancing its way around Adelaide in 1985. And you want to see more of the remarkable behind-the-scenes footage of his first home win at Brazil in 1991.

The film reaches a poignant and moving conclusion. It’s impossible to re-watch the events of that Imola weekend without feeling heavy-hearted and the final sequence strikes an emotional chord.

As Manish wrote here in October: “Many non-F1 people know [Senna] because of his death: hopefully, they will now have some insight into his life.”

“Senna” accomplishes that brilliantly. Quite simply it’s the greatest film about motor racing I have ever seen.

F1 Fanatic rating out of five

Rating five out of five

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“Senna” opens in the UK on June 3rd, 2011. It has already opened in some regions including Japan and Brazil. Please share information on when it opens in your area in the comments.

“Senna” – the Ayrton Senna movie trailer

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109 comments on “Senna” – the Ayrton Senna movie reviewed

  1. Impreza_600BHP said on 15th January 2011, 4:02

    i just cannot wait to see this film, its like the film “when we where kings” but with motor racing, in fact i would say Ayrton Senna is to Motor Racing what Muhammad Ali is to boxing . . . the all time great, the legend

  2. John Laurence said on 17th February 2011, 21:10

    It’s playing in NYC and LA starting this weekend! I just bought my tickets for the LA show!!

    In LA it’s playing at Laemmle Theatres Town Center 5 at 17200 Ventura Blvd, Encino, CA.

    In NYC it’s at:

    Village East Cinema
    181 – 189 2nd Ave
    NEW YORK CITY , NY 10012 • 212-529-6799

    I met Ayrton Senna when I was a kid when he visted the Honda engine plant in Anna Ohio near where I grew up. The photograph he signed and gave me is my prized possesion.

  3. stubie said on 21st February 2011, 15:36

    Saw Senna yesterday in NYC with the NYC F1 Meetup crowd.

    Moving, inspiring and intense, I would recommend for any F1 fan. The Professor was made to be the villain, not unsurprising, but almost a bit too “Reality TV” edited, so it did seem very one sided… but it gave the story a great narrative.

    There seemed to be a sense from the director that the “technology” was taking the soul out of the sport, when discussing the advantage the Williams had in 92-93, and that conversation feels familiar, if you are in F1 or in technology, or just observing the rapid change of life these days.

    Great group of guys in NYC at the F1MeetupNYC. Met some fellow F1 geeks and felt at home.

    Go see Senna if you get the chance.

  4. *** May contain spoilers (not that the rest of the thread doesn’t) ***

    I also saw “Senna” yesterday in East Village in NYC, in a sell-out screening where I had to split my family of four in order to find somewhere to sit! I found it really incongruous to see the word “Senna” on a Manhattan cinema. After more than a decade of living in America, I have hardly seen the presence of F1 here away from Indy and SpeedTV, let alone any public awareness of Ayrton Senna and his impact on the sporting world, but here was an enclave of Senna nostalgia, right in the heart of the Big Apple. Strange.

    Anyway, I think this is a beautiful film, a piece of art with an unexpected lightness of touch, in that it doesn’t simply bludgeon us with a blow-by-blow account of F1 poles, race wins and titles, and then leave that as his validation. Instead, it shows us the very human story of the driver, his family and the people he touched, and the way that there was and still is a unifying and transcendent purpose to his life. The words “human story” should set off alarm bells to anyone who has seen racing movie attempts to interweave off-track stories, especially romances and love triangles, with on-track drama, but this narrative, cleverly, barely touches the stories of Adriane Galisteu and Xuxa. I loved all the new footage from driver briefings, pit and paddock clips and interviews (many in Portuguese or French with English subtitles, so I’m sure my 5 year-old missed a fair amount of the meaning). The story it tells, then, is of a warm, vulnerable and often surprisingly dry and funny character that comes across in unscripted, behind-the-scenes moments, and in sharp contrast to the serious, distant and even boorish unstoppable-force many saw in public, especially earlier in his career.

    The editorial decisions are very smart and disciplined, resisting the temptation I would have felt to focus on race and qualifying footage and that edge-of-genius driving brilliance (as Keith noted we see him dancing the turbo Lotus between the kerbs in Adelaide, with various voice-overs describing his cold-fury driving style, and Ron Dennis hailing his intellect). Tellingly, my wife – not an F1 fan – thought the balance between on and off-track narrative was just right, even though I was left hungry to see the ’85 wet/ dry Spa win, the ’86 Jerez win by thousandths, the ’92 Monaco win over Mansell (or any of his six Monaco wins, for that matter), that first lap at Donington in ’93 and so on. These are sacrificed to a higher purpose, to take one example: the footage of Martin Donnelly’s crash at Jerez, Senna’s reaction to it and the candid way he assessed the personal risk and the possibility of his own death. We see Prost accusing him of flippancy: “Ayrton has a small problem, he thinks that because he believes in God he can’t hurt himself”, which glib assessment is exploded by all the footage of Senna himself, where it is clear that not only did he fear getting hurt, he was painfully aware of it and always demanding of himself the right reasons to continue, all the way to the dark weekend in Imola.

    The film is hard on Balestre but still nowhere near hard enough, and it resists the temptation to demonize Prost, to some extent. But it does put on record Prost’s political stealth (we watch him be the first to hot-foot it to the steward’s office to try to get Senna disqualified after Prost ran into him in Suzuka in ’89), his desire to avoid competition, and his disingenuousness over matters like the so-called ‘normal line’ he claims to have taken into that chicane (there was clearly nothing normal about it and we see Prost challenged on the point by a journalist without having any response beyond asserting his driving credentials, including the bald fact that he had just secured his third WDC!). Fascinatingly, we hear Prost, presumably interviewed much more recently than 1993, admitting that his first demand of Williams was to contractually exclude Senna from the team, and noting their quick agreement to do so. This is astounding to me because I clearly recall a public furor at the time, caused by Prost’s flat-out refusal to admit anything of the sort (he actually said in public in early ’93 that he did nothing to block Senna, who remained entirely free to negotiate a contract with Williams at his leisure, and that Senna must just be having problems negotiating a deal with the team). Senna, as we know, called Prost’s bluff by offering to forgo his usual multi-million dollar salary and drive the Williams for free, with (of course) no contract forthcoming. So, it’s simply amazing to me to hear that Prost has since changed his tune completely, and I wonder why he didn’t just tell the truth at the time. (When I read accounts like Malcom Folley’s book “Senna vs. Prost”, which is unerringly pro-Prost, I have to wonder why some people still see Prost as a serial victim and some kind of model gentleman, when the truth is that he was as devious, underhand and sometimes plain untruthful, as anyone).

    The ’89 to ’90 conflict is, of course, central to the story of Senna’s ascendency and I was pleased to see the back-story to the collision in Japan 1990 documented correctly, and in full. Namely that, having been taken out pretty cynically by Prost in ’89, but re-started to win the race, Senna was then disqualified at Balestre’s intervention, on the breathtaking grounds that he had ‘cut the chicane’ and therefore not completed the full race distance, Balestre having also gone on to levy a $100,000 fine and a 6 month suspended ban on him. We are treated to a highly amusing appeal from the youthful Ron Dennis, showing video examples of escape roads being inexplicably used without penalty (something that is even more commonplace now, of course, as long as there is no gain in position..ahem…but which Prost had himself also done without sanction at Imola the same year, on his way to score six WDC points). Then we have the astonishing sight of Piquet (of all people – as someone who was usually openly hostile to Senna) asking in the drivers’ briefing in Japan 1990 if drivers are seriously expected to do a U-turn and drive back against the oncoming traffic to rejoin the road. Piquet describes Senna as having been “f_cked in 1989″ and the room is clearly in full agreement. Senna is seen explaining how he was treated ‘like a criminal’. This is the exposé of the sheer absurdity of Balestre’s position, that was lacking at the time. Finally, of course, we have Balestre personally intervening to make sure that pole is on the dirty side of the Suzuka grid in 1990 – only after Senna has won the pole, of course, and to his howls of protest. Senna has been so vilified for what happened next that the serial provocation behind it is often lost. A film about Senna can be expected to tell Senna’s side of the story, of course, but this is exactly the sequence of events that preceded that collision and I’m only pleased it wasn’t glossed over in any way. I have always argued against Senna’s act of revenge on the basis that two wrongs (or, in this case, five or six wrongs) don’t make a right, and that it was therefore still a mistake – all the more so in fact because it has now become Exhibit A in arguments against him as a driver of integrity. But there is a new meme doing the rounds, which is that the subsequent multiple professional fouls by Michael Schumacher were merely more of the same, that Senna was an equally dirty driver and that Japan 1990 is the proof of this. Well, other than the fact that Schumacher’s victims: Hill, Villeneuve, Alonso and most recently Barrichello had never so much as said boo to him in combat, let alone attempted to foul him to a DNF and a WDC, and that he long enjoyed the favour and support of the FIA rather than having its President try to drive him from the sport, then, yes, it’s a really fair assessment of the moral equivalence between the two drivers.

    Senna’s 1991 home win in Brazil, with the car stuck in 6th gear and followed by the driver passing out, does get billing, again because of the emotional content of the home win and the touching and funny footage of Senna saying “don’t touch me” to his well-wishers in the pits, and also his need to embrace his father despite the obvious pain he was in. But this is far from a race by race documentary account, and there are moments where the film moves ahead with economical statements like “Senna won six of the next eight races”, none of which we see. Yes, it’s true that the Estoril ’88 and Imola ’89 confrontations are missing, but so are so many of the other great Senna moments, through necessity given the limitations of the movie length format, that it doesn’t strike me as especially egregious to omit them.

    The competitive focus is naturally on Prost and there’s little mention of other champions like Mansell, Piquet and Rosberg, even though it’s part of the backdrop that Senna’s success had to include vanquishing unusually strong fields containing those drivers, too. His F3 nemesis Brundle doesn’t even get a mention, neither do Warwick, Berger, Alboreto or (I think) Lauda. Mansell is almost dismissed, which is at least an accurate reflection of how Senna seems to have viewed him as a competitor: we see him crashing in Monaco in 84, throwing his car and WDC chance into the gravel at Suzuka in 91, and 1992 is (correctly, if somewhat simplistically) described as the year in which electronic suspension/ active ride and driver aids distorted all competition and rendered the title moot before the cars even did a single lap. This is somewhat dismissive, but then it’s exactly what happened, and we hear Senna’s view that this was the antithesis of a driving competition. Some would no doubt call this whining when such innovation is obviously part of the sport, but the point about the sheer magnitude of the superiority of FW14B, and its singular role in diminishing driver input, is well taken. Senna’s remarkable campaign to win five races in the customer-engined 1993 McLaren-Ford is skipped over fairly lightly.

    The story of Imola and his death is just loaded with footage of the anguish of the time. We hear of the instability of the post TC and active ride cars and we hear Senna’s concerns that we would see a lot more cars going off as a result. The notable exception, of course, being the Benetton, or at least one of the Benettons, and we hear Frank Williams saying that Senna was convinced the Benetton was still running traction control, and had implored the team to lodge a protest (he was correct, of course, as we learned later). With some lament in his voice, Williams notes “we did not”. (Team Briatore’s “accidental” removal of its fuel filters to shorten pit stops is not mentioned, and was clearly never known to Senna). There is footage of Ratzenberger talking about the extent to which he is having to over-drive his car, a horrible reminder of the crash the extremely youthful-looking Barrichello suffered, and then the darkness descends, through Ratzenberger’s sudden death, told in real time through Senna’s reactions to it, and then the fateful final race, the Lamy/ Lehto collision (also shocking) and the onboard footage of Senna’s final lap. The cinema was eerily silent through all of this, save for some quiet sniffling, with everyone (my five year-old excepted) knowing and dreading what was coming (he was very sad). The cause of Senna’s off is correctly identified as a mystery but I’m glad one of the team members is heard describing Tamburello as comfortably flat even at race speed, which it clearly was. It was even flat in the wet in some conditions, as Senna had showed the previous year, and all the drama and speculation surrounding his death seems to have left the impression that the car would somehow have been on edge through that curve. It is stated that steering column breakage is a probable cause, or perhaps the low tyre pressures and bottoming caused the car to just skate, and left at that.

    Senna’s religious conviction has a prominent part of the narrative, through his own words. Although I am, like Syd Watkins, an atheist (actually I am generally hostile to religious pretensions, including the ones which claim the creator of the universe is interested in, and intervenes to influence, the outcome of sports competitions), it is clearly correct that this aspect of his life is told on its own terms. He turned to religious conviction after his mistake at Monaco in ’88 and used it to channel his strength and move forward, and it’s clearly a part of how he sustained himself. Only once does the film run the risk of over-selling the case, which is when he is described as having read a bible verse (I think this was narrated by his sister Viviane) on the morning of his final race day, which says something cryptic to the effect that God will provide a great deliverance, namely God himself (and I paraphrase only from memory), and then went on to the race with renewed vigor. Hmm. The implication hangs in the air that perhaps he foresaw his own death, or received a divine instruction to race, which is dangerously close to descending into Nostradamus or horoscope-style generic mumbo-jumbo. It’s possible that the implied narrative I took from this was unintentional, and/or that I would see it differently on second viewing, but I do think that the Senna story is extraordinary enough on its own merits without needing to refer to the supernatural. Nonetheless, the role of his religious conviction was tangible in his life and it deserves the airing it got.

    The film is sandwiched between footage and a Senna voiceover describing his 1978 and 79 periods in karting as ‘pure racing’, without politics or any money involved, in answer to a question about which driver he derived the most pleasure from racing (Terry Fullerton, his karting rival, was his answer). For all of the above, this is not a divisive film. It is about a remarkable person we didn’t see enough of behind the yellow helmet and the formalities of interviews, and someone of massive personal charisma and conviction. We only see him running to help Comas in Spa during the closing credits, but we hear Syd Watkins describe his friendship with Senna as the closest he’s had with any driver, we hear the fan interviews which describe how much he elevated the nation of Brazil during a particularly desperate period in its history, and the fan interviews are very touching, especially those of some of the women describing what this F1 driver meant to them. We hear of the Senna foundation, his desire to help kids in poverty and the lasting legacy which has educated millions of Brazilian children. The darkness of Imola is followed by a cathartic return to his final podium celebration after his win at Adelaide in ’93, putting his arms around Hill and the departing Prost, and some playful scenes of him with friends on the beach – an overtly celebratory tone, in other words, rather than dwelling on the sadness and vacuum of his death. I never felt that anything good came of his death inside F1, the competition was distorted for a decade and – ultimate humiliation – Eau Rouge even became a first gear chicane for a race, but the point is made that the steps taken in safety have been followed by no more driver deaths, and that must count for something. I find his educational legacy in Brazil rather more compelling, though, since I know it could not have happened anyway.

    All in all, I found this an epic and clever film, full of humanity, reflection and meaning (whoever thought it would be better to fictionalize the same story with Antonio Banderas in the title role was, well, a bit wide of the mark), and only partially a story about cars being driven extremely fast. That’s why it works, unlike almost every other racing movie ever made, and I’m wondering if it will stand on its own as a testament to perhaps the only driver big enough to carry it, or if it will spawn a genre of new driver-documentary films in a similar vein.

  5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSFbJf0FhKM

    There’s a really interesting, long discussion here about the movie (and all matters Senna) with its producer, Bruno and his driver coach.

    Some fascinating comments later from the driver coach about how Senna outsmarted rather than just outdrove Prost (contrary to the accepted wisdom), how each generation of drivers gets more aggressive, and how Senna was actually a very fair racer by today’s standards (e.g. Barcelona vs. Mansell contrasted to Schumacher on Barrichello in Hungary 2010). While I was browsing, I came across this, as if to emphasize his point:

  6. I need to learn to use the link function. Here’s the second link:

  7. Stephen said on 27th February 2011, 12:43

    Was fortunate enough to see the film today in Adelaide (quite fittingly). It’s every bit as good as everyone is saying. I couldn’t agree more with the analysis and review from Sean in the brilliant post above.

    I’m also tired of people thinking that Senna’s & Schumacher’s indiscretions are comparable. Thank you for clearly articulating why they aren’t.

  8. Mel said on 1st March 2011, 5:58

    The movie had it’s Australian debut in Adelaide (of course) last Sunday the 27th Feb. It is “Sennasational”. 2nd & final session Adelaide March 6th 2011 1.30 pm Piccadilly cinema. Don’t miss it!It is great to Ayrton on the big screen.

  9. Carl in Adelaide said on 1st March 2011, 18:13

    just saw it at the Adelaide Film Festival and there is another screening this weekend. I concur, it is an entirely enthralling account of his career. It appeared a high number of the brazilian community here turned up to see it, not just motor racing fans. I think everyone was completely captivated and the cinema erupted in applause at the end. Highly recommended you see it when you can.

  10. Mel said on 6th March 2011, 14:44

    They had an extra screening of the movie Sunday evening, different theatre.Adelaide.
    Alan & I have now seen it 3 times. The end never gets any easier.
    Love & light
    Melanie

  11. Mel said on 6th March 2011, 14:46

    3 screenings packed theatre every time.
    Adelaide. Applause at the end.

  12. DMC said on 7th March 2011, 0:00

    I had the pleasure of watching the movie in Adelaide yesterday and start by saying that Senna was much loved in Adelaide and his rise through F1 greatness coincided with the Australian Grand Prix’s rise in the 80’s and early 90’s in Adelaide.

    The movie is a great snapshot of Ayrton’s life – to capture everything this man achieved in a movie is almost impossible but the director and producers have delivered a fantastic movie-mentary.

    Senna’s close personal relationships, in particular those with his mother and father, Doc Sid Watkins and girlfriend, Adriane Galisteu demonstrate the human side to an often shy individual.

    I had forgotten how spiritual he was, often citing God in his on-camera dialogue.

    The early go-kart footage and Toleman days will deepen the knowledge of those who have only known of him since 1994.

    The constant fued with Alain Prost is somewhat misrepresented, Ayrton was no saint, he gave more than he got, he was a racers racer, not afraid to make the unmakeable move and the movie in part represents this position.

    The race day drivers meeting room footage gives viewers a great insight into the racing life of Senna – outspoken, opinionated, all driven by ‘safety’.

    The format is great, the movie well paced and rare footage fantastic. Sadly there is no fairy tail ending, Senna dies, I wish they could re-write the script, I wish it never ended this way, but it did.

    Be prepared to shed a tear, ‘long live the King, the King is dead’

  13. DMC said on 10th March 2011, 7:39

    I recently discovered this link, I am unaware if it is fiction or fact but recomend reading the article:

    http://community.codemasters.com/forum/f1-general-discussion-1013/440730-sennas-last-4-days.html

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 10th March 2011, 7:51

      What’s the original source?

      • DMC said on 10th March 2011, 8:56

        Keith, I’m sorry but I don’t know, saw the movie on Sunday and have been on a Senna surf for a few days and stumbled across it – when I get some time I will attempt to verify some of the story…

        DMC in Adelaide

        • Richo said on 2nd April 2011, 11:43

          It’s from ‘The Life of Senna’, by Tom Rubython.

          It’s a very powerful section of what is a very hard book to put down.

  14. Jimmy said on 1st April 2011, 0:07

    Absolutely wonderful movie. Contrary to some reviews, it doesn’t paint him in that good a light at all, although you see a lot more smiles than we used to from him. Having contributons from his family members somehow makes him seem quite human, but he certainly doesn’t appear saintly!! If you get a chance to watch it please do, the joy and the tragedy will stay with you for a long time, I promise you!!!

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