Friday, 17 June 2011

FILM REVIEW: Senna


I think I was always supposed to be a Jacques Villeneuve fan. Through no encouragement or reason whatsoever, one day I just sat down and watched a Grand Prix for the very first time. It was the 1996 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, and it was JV's first ever race win in Formula One. It took a couple of races, but once I was in I was in. Something made me watch the race that day, and somehow I was supposed to closely follow the career of this young French Canadian, who had come to the sport from Indycar, the American equivalent of prime two wheeled racing, to Williams - the best team on the grid. Being a JV fan, I had to be a Williams fan also - it goes hand in hand does it not? - and so in all my eager enthusiasm to soak up every single fact about my new obsession I read and watched everything Formula One related. Which was why, in that 1996 season, that I was doubly confused as to why my 'favourite team' was being tried for manslaughter. What on earth? How could a team - more of an outfit and a brand than a group of people - have killed somebody? And that is when I first encountered Ayrton Senna.

Back in the mid 90s you didn't have such things as You Tube and Wikipedia - I couldn't just simply look up who he was and bring myself up to date with the situation. Besides I was 10 years old. Much too young to understand the complexities and drama that surrounds the tragic death of one of the greatest ever racing car drivers. So I picked up bits and pieces along the way - in fact the first time I saw the fatal crash was on the 1994 F1 Review VHS I got a couple of Christmas' later. In a world where cars are literally bulldozed in wind tunnels before going to track, the world of F1 was invincible to me - every time I see Senna's car career off at Tamburello I think to myself, "how could he have died from that?"

What I know about Ayrton Senna has been gained through reading, watching and learning. But never experiencing. I was never a fan of Ayrton Senna, nor saw him race 'live' - he was part of another generation, to go along with all the other drivers who have long since raced, lived or died. So to watch Asif Kapadia's Senna it was a chance to finally get to know this legend, hero, myth, superstar the drivers, pundits and commentators I have grown up with so adored and idolised. It's an absolute must for any F1 fan, particularly if you are my age and you missed out on all of this history. It's a privilege to be able to watch what is, such a fantastically gripping, emotional, devout documentary - it's a movie in itself, and all the more exhausting to watch as it's all real.

The film is also completely accessible to non F1 fans - its pace and style easy to immerse yourself in as you start with Senna's first year in Formula One - 1984 - and then Kapadia tracks the highlights, lowlights, pivotal and damning moments along the way, as we finally reach 1994, the final year. You discover Senna along the way, with unprecedented amount of home video footage, a focus on Senna's faith in God, his obsession with racing and wanting to prove himself, his anguish at being upstaged and turned on, his pure passion to win. By the time you reach his final moments it is almost unthinkable that this person will soon no longer cease to exist.

But let's talk about the bright things. Cause of utmost anger and tension at the time, but his relationship and rivalry with Alain Prost is just marvellous to watch. You just don't get characters like this in Formula One nowadays. I looked on green in envy that older fans got to enjoy and live this as it actually happened. Imagine staying up late for Suzuka 1990 and seeing the collision at the first corner happen right before your eyes? Sometimes sport is just straight-out drama, a theatre, and this was one of those such moments. The film is told from the perspective of Senna, and does a lot to justify his emotions and actions - so it's hard not to see the intimate and closed conversations between Prost and the then FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre as anything other than scheming against Senna to shoot him down at every turn to make sure Prost drunk up all the champagne. Maybe it was like this - F1 has never been short of politics - but there was certainly no malice there. The connection between the two is heightened further, where the camera spans to Prost's face in the aftermath of the Tamburello accident, and also as he acts as a pall bearer, at Ayrton's funeral. This was simply the power of motorracing, and how it can throw up the most extreme pressure and the most extreme friendships.

It was also wonderful - if not slightly nerve-wracking - to follow Senna on the on-board camera, displaying all the proof that was ever needed of what a superb talent he was: so, so fast, but also dogged and relentless in his pursuit of triumph. All you ever hear about is Donnington 1993, so it was refreshing to see this glanced over in favour of races such as Monaco 1984 and Brazil 1991. He truly was a special breed, and all the more exciting to watch because of his spark - you can see why this infuriated and calm, methodical strategist 'Professor' Alain Prost. It was hard not to think, had I watched F1 then, would Ayrton have been my Jacques?

I'm glad he wasn't - because 1994 would have crushed me. As much fun as the film is romping through the altercations with Prost, the media, his fans - things suddenly get very sober, fast. It's 1994 and the film completely changes tone as we draw ever closer to Black Weekend. Unless you're an F1 fan it will come as a surprise to you that Ayrton was not the only driver to be killed that weekend - in fact, watching it documented as a whole on screen made me realise what an horrific weekend it was from start to finish (If any race weekend has ever been cursed, it must surely be this one). Until moments before, I had completely forgotten Rubens Barichello's crash in Friday practice, and also the horrendous start line shunt between JJ Lehto and Pedro Lamy in the race. But I hadn't forgotten the fate of Roland Ratzenberger - and so watching his car speed around the track was absolutely terrifying. In fact - I don't think I breathed much in the final half an hour of the film - it's just too much to take in.

Watching Senna's last moments was just eerie. As he paced around the garage in the morning, settling into the car on the grid, helmet off, face looking tense but also weighed with a sadness that comes after losing a colleague... It is actually unbearable to watch, extraordinarily uncomfortable - you won't want to do anything after seeing this film I can tell you that now. I'm not sure what to make of the account of Senna's actions on the morning of his death: opening the Bible to take courage to race he read that God would give him the greatest gift of all - God himself. It fits so neatly, doesn't it? Yet there's a strange supernatural undercurrent which sheds the events of that day into an otherworldly light - pronounced deeper by F1 doctor Syd Watkins as he treated the dying Senna on the side of the track: "he sighed, and although I am agnostic, I felt his soul depart at that moment". Hogwash or not, it's a beautiful part of the film.

Halloween 1999. Sleep patterns distorted by the Japanese Grand Prix, I'm up late listening to the radio when the sports report comes on to tell me that Juan Pablo Montoya has won the Indycar championship. How dare they spoiler that information for me! I wouldn't see the race until the following night and now the suspense was all ruined. I was livid. Then the radio said, "but the race was marred by the death of Greg Moore on Lap 10." And then I went into a cold trance. I had heard the words but not fully understood them. I stayed up for another hour to hear the same report again, just to make sure I had heard right. Greg Moore was one of my most favourite people in the world. After discovering Jacques had come from Indycar, I started watching it myself in 1997 and soon became a firm fan of Greg who drove for the same team Jacques had, and was also Canadian (I think I was a little obsessed with Canada back then). Back then, these people were my heroes. I lived and breathed my life through them, dictated my life around them, my moods were controlled by how well they were doing. To then lose one was just catastrophic. I was 13. I had to sit and watch my favourite driver flip over and slam upside down at 200mph into a concrete wall and the car disintegrate around him. It upset me for months (I haven't watched Indycar since).

This is all I have of death and motorracing. It's something that - though the safety is so powerful today - always lingers in the back of the mind when you watch on television. For someone as beloved as Ayrton Senna was, I cannot comprehend what millions of people went through that day as they saw a hero lying on the grass, surrounded my medical staff, not moving. Watching it 17 years later on the big screen, it brings every base emotion back and is one of the hardest things I have ever had to watch in cinema, on the screen, in my life. You have been warned.

Loved the music, loved the shot selection, the way everything was told a story. Asif Kapadia has created not only a homage to Senna, but one of the best documentaries and films you will see this year, and in the sports genre, one of the best ever. I urge you to go and see Senna as not only will it cut you to the core, it will also empower you with the thought that some people out there are just placed exactly where they should be in life, and thrive. If only he had just been at the halfway point of his life as he suggests in an interview, perhaps his legacy would not be so affecting - all the same, it is unforgettable to watch.


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