‘Senna’: review of the film

A fortnight ago the film entitled ‘Senna’ was released in the United Kingdom. Forumula1.com’s Hugh Podmore was invited to a near-exclusive screening in London, and here gives his personal review of the film

‘Senna’ is essentially a biopic of the great Brazilian, which concentrates on that which was most important and significant in his life – his motor racing. It tells only briefly of his life prior to his entry into Formula One in 1984, and with the exception of some home video footage, there is little recounted of his personal life – the focus is definitely on the racing. The story is told exclusively with the use of archives, coupled with key comments from the major players, which forms a narration.

His career in F1 is charted from those early days with Toleman, to the move to Lotus and then to McLaren in 1988. The politics of the relationship with those around him at the team where he won his world championships are extensively covered, as is Senna’s relationship with Alain Prost. which becomes a central theme of the movie. The tumultuous events of 1989-90, when controversy reigned and the sport became a soap opera of strife between the two drivers and their respective supporters, are given much attention by the filmmakers, and justifiably so.

The film goes on to show Senna moving to Williams for the 1994 season, and his accident and death at Imola in the San Marino Grand Prix on 1 May 1994. The importance of his success – and therefore the magnitude of the emotion felt with his passing – to the people of Brazil is also emphasised, and his hero status is in no doubt by the end credits.

The film did a number of things very well. The tone was appropriate – at no time did it feel as though the viewer was being unduly coerced into hero-worship, and Senna’s death was treated with suitable reverence and gravitas. During his life, lived at the very edge of adhesion, the viewer got a raw sense of Senna’s wonderful ability behind the wheel. The footage, rare even to the most dedicated of Youtube F1 cruisers (for which we can be very grateful to the Senna family and to Bernie Ecclestone for opening his store), was impeccably put together and the narrative was coherent throughout. The story effectively told itself with minimal annotation needed, and I am persuaded that that is not an easy thing to do cinematographically.

The depiction of the political rows was measured and balanced for a film that could so easily have wholeheartedly taken Senna’s side and as a consequence might have been myopic. Although the viewer obviously ends up siding with Senna it feels like a choice…an unsettling conclusion, Prost supporters may say, but again testament to how well the story is presented. Prost, meanwhile, was far from demonised, and that is another tribute to the makers. Jean-Marie Balestre, erstwhile FISA and then FIA President, is the character who emerges most similar to a pantomime villain.

The best aspect of the film, in my view, was the way that Senna’s intensity was conveyed. The viewer got a real sense of Senna’s fierce spirit, which by all accounts had a way of communicating itself even when the man was silent. Senna’s ability to brood in an almost violent way was brought across perfectly by the film and to great dramatic effect. Quite another matter is the way that some people thought of him, and still do, as some sort of demi-god. But the film cannot be to blame for reflecting the situation accurately.

I did, however, leave the cinema with some questions. Firstly, was Senna’s well-documented confidence – some would say arrogance – represented sufficiently in the film? Prost and Mansell, I am led to believe, both agreed that Senna thought that he could not kill himself in a racing car, and Senna’s half-hearted denial – that he didn’t think he was immortal – was perhaps less than convincing. To a certain extent, too much criticism of the man would have been counterproductive for the film, but perhaps there could have been more balance in the form of further testimony from those who competed with and against him.

Secondly, I found myself irritated with some points made surrounding his tragic death. Senna died from multiple injuries caused by his impact with the Tamburello wall – cranial trauma sustained in three major places. He was hit firstly by the right front wheel, causing massive damage and pushing his head back against the head rest, which in turn caused grave injuries to the back of his skull. A piece of the suspension assembly is also reported to have pierced his helmet, inflicting further damage. It is commonly accepted that Senna would have been lucky to survive one of these impacts, but with the three he had very little chance. ESPN commentator John Bisignano (who was the de facto narrator of the film) saying that “if the assembly had gone six inches higher or six inches lower he would have walked away”, therefore, is disingenuous. It gave the unfortunate and unsavoury impression that artistic licence had been deployed.

The cause of the accident itself is more contentious. The impression I got was that the film was saying that either a) Senna’s steering column broke or b) we’ll never know what happened. Although perhaps there was not time to give fair hearing to the competing theories, this left an idea that other explanations had been neglected. Patrick Head has denied that the engineering of the Williams FW16 was at fault, saying that although the official report into the crash found metal fatigue in the steering column, he doubted “whether they are present to the extent to actually put a component at risk.”

The other theories are that Senna made a mistake, as Damon Hill is reported to believe, or that the track at the Tamburello corner was woefully unsafe, the lack of run-off caused by there being a river on the other side of it. It is conceivable, although an argument to which it is difficult to subscribe fully, that as far as the first idea goes the Brazilian media and the Senna hero-worshippers would not countenance the great man having made a mistake. As for Imola, the Italian authorities arguably did not want their circuit’s name muddied nor their status as a privileged member of the F1 community jeopardised.

Whichever of these explanations is true, it would perhaps have been fitting for more debate to have been allocated to them in the film. A quasi-mystical assertion that the cause of the crash will never be truly known seems to play somewhat lazily to the idea that Senna was himself beyond comprehension. Senna was a master, the master, the greatest of all time. But he was not superhuman.

And lastly, arguably, it was that essential humanity that perhaps could have had more emphasis. The humanity that Senna showed with his Senninha character and his charity work, which was maybe a mite glossed over. The humanity that saw him run down the Spa track at Blanchimont into oncoming traffic to go to JJ Lehto’s aid, which unbelievably was only shown during the credits. The humanity for which he should have been celebrated without recourse to woolly supernaturalism.

But then, maybe Senna’s belief in God was what drove him to the incredible levels of performance he attained. This film will definitely make you think, and that is why you should go and see it if you haven’t already. It will also make you laugh and it may make you cry too. But it somehow seems that where 105 minutes are all that was taken to explain a life like Senna’s, it was never really going to be comprehensive enough for diehards.