Saturday, October 8, 2011

Senna (Wanous)

Only true race fans will applaud this film
by Craig Wanous
L'Attitudes Correspondent

"Senna." Rated PG-13, 106 min., opens nationwide Friday, Oct. 7

This 2010 documentary is about Formula One auto racing and one of its superstars, Brazilian driver Aryton Senna, whose meteoric rise and fall dominated the sport for nearly a decade.

Commendably, director Asif Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey have made a respectable film using nothing but recorded interviews, home movies and archival footage.
The racing scenes, especially those using video from cameras mounted on Senna's car, are gripping, and the speeds are so fast that I had to look hard to be sure the film wasn't running at double speed.
One gripe: the interview footage gives only short glimpses into the man and the sport, leaving the viewer longing for a more in-depth look into both.

Most people in the U.S. have probably never heard of Senna (I know I hadn't), but in the elite world of Formula One racing, he was one of the best -- winning the World Championship three times.
Raised in a well-to-do family in Brazil, he started racing go-karts at a young age before moving up to Formula One. He burst onto the scene at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1988 and literally raced to the top, just missing winning the World Championship the next year.

The primary focus of the documentary is Senna's intense rivalry with his former teammate, Alain Prost, and the controversies of the 1989 and 1990 championships, when both titles were decided under bizarre circumstances involving possibly intentional crashes and dubious racing politics.

The film leads the viewer to believe that Prost deliberately caused Senna to crash in 1989 so Prost could win, and that Senna returned the favor the next year. Their bitter competition reminded me of the Kerrigan/Hardy figure skating wars, but without the crowbar attack.

What the film doesn't do is give the viewer a look at the real Aryton Senna.

We learn about his wealthy upbringing, his obsession with racing and his fervent belief in God, including a prophetic comment before his final race. We see him with numerous women but never learn how important they were to him. He is shown boating with some children, but we never learn who they are.
His sister is interviewed several times but we never hear if they were close or not.

We see that he is a national hero in his native Brazil, especially when he wins the Brazilian Grand Prix. But we never really get beyond the public persona, to see what's behind those intense eyes and what made him so competitive.

The film does show us some of the politics of Formula One racing, including some questionable actions taken by the governing body, the FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile).

There is the suggestion of corruption but that's all it is, a suggestion. The director of the organization is French, as is Senna's rival, Prost, so the rulings certainly appear suspicious.

But, frustratingly, the film makers don't dig any deeper and we never find out for sure.
Ultimately, the film is a good-not-great documentary about a man and his sport. The racing scenes are fascinating and the movie is a window into a world most people know nothing about. But the superficiality of the film leaves a lot to be desired.

Would I recommend it? If you recognize the name in the title, then yes, you should definitely see it. If you don't know the name but are interested in auto racing, then maybe you should see it.

If you don't fit into those two categories, then rent John Frankenheimer's Formula One racing film "Grand Prix" - it's a much better film.

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