The problem with many documentaries (or fictionalisations) about household names is that everyone knows the ending before they go into the cinema – we all know that Ali won the fight in Zaire (When We Were Kings) – and as such they’re a difficult sell. It’s even more difficult when we know the ending involves the tragic death of someone who was far too young and whose brilliance was only just becoming apparent.
Fortunately, Senna still manages to hold the attention from start to finish purely because of the charisma of the man himself. Even those with little or no interest in F1 would be recommended to watch this, it’s not a film about motor racing, it’s a film about a man who just happened to be a driver (and who’s sheer brilliance in the field was what determined the way he lived the rest of his life it would appear). Much like the old footage of Freddy Mercury, the charisma of the man is apparent the moment he appears on screen, ultimately this makes the tragedy of his fate all the more heart breaking (and it’s hard not to be saddened come the end) and means this has appeal beyond the petrol-head crowd. The subject becomes interesting because the man himself is interesting, not only because of what he was capable of doing (and watching the footage leaves you with no doubt that he was a genius when it came to driving a car) but the effect that he had on the people around him.
However if you have more than a passing interest in the subject it’s a stark reminder of just how insane the sport used to be. Senna was the last driver to die in a sport which at the time was more dangerous than boxing (and the safety aspects of that sport in relation to the risks were far ahead of the safety in F1 at the time). Cars were literally rocket sleds with the driver way up front, exposed to the world (literally, the head and shoulders sat above the body work). Technological innovation allowed cars to go faster and faster, far beyond what the circuits were capable of taking. Today’s races seem tame by comparison, the edges smoothed out (rightly so) in the pursuit of safety.
It’s not without its problems, but the quality of the rest of the film is such that it’s seems churlish to mention them. Yes, it skirts over the controversial aspects of his life (the risk taking that occasionally endangered others, the relationship with a fifteen year old) and it’s portrayal of Prost leaves a little to be desired (but I’m guessing that any film needs a villain figure), but these are minor blips in terms of quality. A good documentary is one that has interest to those who have no interest in the subject at the beginning, and this creates that in spades. What’s more, by the time the inevitable ending looms on the horizon the work has been done – in-car footage from his final lap cuts away at the last moment to the wide shot that appeared on numerous televisions that night – and the sense of loss is palpable.
As with many documentaries it’s a difficult find in these multiplex days, but it’s difficult to see how a fictionalised version of the events would work as well as this, if it wasn’t real it would be difficult to make up. For me it’s the first truly must see outside of the January award season this year.