By on September 11, 2011

Welcome to an unauthorized diversion from our core purpose called another episode of TTAC At The Movies. I’m your host, Jack Baruth, and this time we will be looking at a movie that is unlikely to find too much American viewership. (This is the second such review on TTAC; the first is here. Still, we are the site which had three people review the Camry.) Those who do watch it, however, are likely to be very passionate about the subject.

Quoth the Wiki:

In 2009, a poll of 217 current and former Formula One drivers conducted by the British magazine Autosport named [Aryton] Senna as the greatest Formula One driver.[2][6] He was recognised for his qualifying speed over one lap and from 1989 until 2006 held the record for most pole positions. He was especially quick in wet conditions, as shown by his performances in the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix, and the 1993 European Grand Prix. He also holds the record for most victories at the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix – six – and is the third most successful driver of all time in terms of race wins.

As with Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and a host of other notables, Senna’s already lustrous reputation was burnished by death in his prime; unlike the champions who succeeded him, most notably Villeneuve and Schumacher, nobody ever had to watch Senna plod through depressing end-of-career, back-of-the-pack seasons. (Of course, one might want to ask precious little Lewis Hamilton whether Herr Schumacher still has any fight left in him.) The documentary Senna is intended to be watchable by both F1 “anoraks” and people who are utterly ignorant of the sport. When Vodka McBigbra and I showed up to watch it on Friday night, therefore, we had a representative of each type.

Formula One fans will want to watch the movie. It’s powerful, it’s well-edited, and it is utterly compelling. The best possible use is made of the footage available, particularly some stunning low-angle, on-board Monaco films which are far more impressive and engaging than the modern top-of-rollbar shots in 1920pqrs or whatever the current format is. One of my F1-fan pals noted “Anybody watching the movie would think that the F1 season had three races: Brazil, Monaco, and Japan,” and that’s at least partially true, since those races are the most-discussed.

The Prost/Senna rivalry is emphasized as much as humanly possible, and just when you, the viewer, are ready to hop out of your chair, catch a flight to Paris, and punch the dispassionate, manipulative Frenchman in his distended beak, the film turns a corner and emphasizes Prost’s service to Senna’s legacy after the 1994 accident. Jean-Marie Balestre, on the other hand, receives no such redemption.

Prior to watching the movie, my companion had only heard the word “Senna” from me, and in some highly questionable contexts: “I’m the Senna of NASA Performance Touring,” “that move that got me disqualified was just what Senna would do,” “sure, I threw a temper tantrum in the meeting, but Senna did that,” and so on. By the end of the movie, she fully understood what the man himself had endured and achieved; more importantly for those of you who may have to drag spouses to the movie, she was enthralled. The only scenes which dragged for her were the on-board camera shots showing how the gap at a certain chicane had narrowed and that kind of thing. “Like watching football when you don’t understand football.” Fair enough. She did, however, get the main points: great wet-weather driver, very passionate, hated Alain Prost, three-time world champion, and currently dead.

Death, by the way, is perhaps the one aspect of the movie which is not perfectly handled. Too much of the film is devoted to segments of Senna interviews where the man discusses his fear of death, his fear of accidents, the likelihood of death, and so on. The first three or four times this happens in the movie, it’s poignant and touching. The seventh or eighth, one is tempted to say, Yes. Enough. We get it. He knew he could die, but he thought he had a long life ahead. Yes. We understand.

The movie is also shot with a uniquely South American sensibility. As a cyclist who trained South American men for a decade, I learned quickly that they don’t act like USian men. They cry in public, they kiss their mothers and sisters, they openly discuss their emotions, they have no taste for the laconic quip in the face of danger. A Brazilian or Bolivian man would think nothing of crying because he lost a race. When Senna perorates at some length about how he is afraid to die, it doesn’t match up very well with my idea of the stoic racing driver, chomping a cigar before cheating death and saying things like, “I suppose a chap could check right out of the motel in that turn, were he unlucky enough to bollocks it up.”

The movie would probably also benefit from an English-language narrator instead of endless subtitles. Moviegoers who don’t like to read the screen, or who cannot read small subtitles on a shifting background, will not be pleased. No attempt is made to disguise the foreign nature of the film; although English is the working language of Formula One, it is not the working language of Senna.

These relatively small gripes aside, we are talking about a film which simply vaults over most of the racing-related cinema of the past fifty years. The last major open-wheel-centric movie to be shown in American theaters was, if memory does not fail me, Sylvester Stallone’s Driven. The difference between the two is adequately explained like so: Senna shows a long shot of a broken, despondent Frank Williams looking into the sky for a God who may or may not exist, while Driven has Burt Reynolds in a wheelchair and CART racers who take impromptu spins on public roads without their helmets.

It’s worth watching, and although doing so will take some effort for many Americans, that effort will be rewarded.

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45 Comments on “TTAC At The Movies: “Senna”...”

  • avatar
    Hildy Johnson

    Schumacher has more than twice the number of race wins, more poles, and more titles. There simply can be no question that Schumacher is far and away the most successful Formula 1 driver of all times.

    (Edit – should have read more carefully – the article stated correctly that Senna is the THIRD most successful driver of all time in terms of race wins.)

    Senna committed suicide, sort of, by taking unreasonable risks in his car setup and driving style once Schumacher had burst onto the scene and started to challenge Senna’s dominance. If Senna indeed had been the superior driver, there would not have been a need for that.

    • 0 avatar

      The 94 Benetton was a less powerful but much better handling car than that years Williams. Once the active suspension was removed the FW16 was not a winning car at the beginning of the season.

      Senna always drove as fast as his car would possibly go, had he not died at Imola I have no doubt he would have been champion again.

      Schumacher took plenty of risks including driving his already terminally damaged car into Hill at the end of the 94 season to win the championship.

      He tried the same trick with Villeneuve in 97 in Jerez but this time he ended up the loser and being disqualified.

    • 0 avatar

      I think more highly of a driver willing to test his limits so much he might crash, than a driver willing to crash into his opponent to preserve his point lead…

      …or to fake a crash during qualifying to rob his opponent of the opportunity to earn a better grid position…

      …or to basically do anything, no matter how petty a manipulation of the rules, to win at all costs. (This philosophy made Shoe and the Enzo company perfect matches for each other, by the way.)

      When you have to compete with bastards like Shoe, it ruins a sport for everybody, any sport.

      • 0 avatar

        +1- I always felt that Schumachers dominance was somewhat contrived, partly as a draw for spectators. Crashing into Damon Hill, purposely, in order to win the title tells you everything you need to know about ‘schumy’. When he was not penalized for that tells you everything you need to know about modern day F-1. Watching him again in Monza reminded me what a poor excuse for a sportsman he really is. Senna had more class and talent in his little finger than schumacher ever will. Put them in equal cars and micheal wouldn’t have a chance.

    • 0 avatar

      There are also few people in F1 who would swear on anything that’s dear to them that Shuey’s 94 Benetton was legal.

      The team was lead by Flava flav (and by that I mean Flavio Briatore) of later Singapore race-fixing-gate Teflonso/Piquet Jr fame.

      Even if the car didn’t have or rather didn’t use* the traction/launch control many people in the know accused it of having it was at least proven after fellow Dutchman Jos Verstappen’s pitlane inferno that the team had removed a valve from the refuelling rigs so the fuel could flow 13,5Liters/s instead of 12. As the refuelling took longer than the changing of tires this meant they’d gain valuable seconds at each stop. The team then managed to get off the hook by hiring an expensive lawyer and succesfully blaming the whole thing on an intern, eventhough anyone with half a brain could see how rediculous that was.

      So basically, Senna was up against an illegal car in a fast but tricky Williams that he still managed to put on pole for the first three races.

      *”At the council meeting, the governing body (FIA) also announced that no evidence had been found to suggest Benetton were using illegal electronic systems, but did say that an illegal system did exist, which could be activated at any time.”

    • 0 avatar
      Hildy Johnson

      There seems to be some mix-up of moral and technical categories here. Senna may have been the better sportsman, the more daring daredevil, and the more attractive persona all around. However, I fail to see the evidence that his driving skills, technical savvy and toughness under pressure matched Schumacher’s.

  • avatar
    Sammy B

    great review. it just started showing up here in northern ohio as well. Wasn’t able to make it this weekend, but should be able to during the week.

    As a lifelong CART/Champ Car fan….you just had to bring up Driven! Such a terrible movie… was even harder to watch as a fan knowing what an injustice it was doing!

    btw Jack, Have you seen that IMAX movie Superspeedway? From the glory years of CART and has a Mario Andretti-driven camera car. Just outstanding through and through. The Mark Knopfler soundtrack and Paul Newman narration are both cherries on top!

  • avatar

    That shot of Senna, Mansel, Prost and Piquet summarizes why F1 was such a joy to follow back then and an (almost) always boring thing these days.

    By the way, I always liked Piquet more than Senna. Not 100% sure why, but it is something I had with me since when Senna joined F1 and I never changed my mind about it.

  • avatar

    Aryton Senna is truly one of the greats. The greatest of all? Hmmn. Unfortunately, we tend to forget those of the generations before us. An oft forgotten name, Tazio Nuvolari, springs immediately to mind – and I’m fortunate to be old enough to remember reading books as a child when the general feeling was that HE was the greatest the world had ever seen.

    And, as you’ve mention, Senna’s legend had the huge advantage of the classic rock and roll death: He was gone before he had the chance to ever become a struggling has-been, not smart enough to have quit while he was at the top.

    But yes, he was truly one of the greats. Almost definitely the best of his generation. But, of all time . . . . . . . . . ?

    Looking forward to seeing the movie.

    (And, after today, I too would love to see what Herr Schumacher is capable of in, say, Herr Vettel’s car?)

  • avatar

    I never worshiped at the altar of Ayrton. Talented for sure but the best ever? Better than Andretti, Stewart, Hill, Clark?

    • 0 avatar

      Umm, he’s not regarded as great because I (an occasional hoon who has been on a track once) say he is, or because Jack the Great says he is. To (re)quote the Wiki:
      “In 2009, a poll of 217 current and former Formula One drivers conducted by the British magazine Autosport named [Aryton] Senna as the greatest Formula One driver.”
      Watch the film to see which of your hero’s hold him up as their hero.

    • 0 avatar

      Fangio! His winning percentage is better than both Senna and Schumacher, plus he was winning F1 when he was an fat old man – in the days when muscle was required to move these cars around.

    • 0 avatar

      Senna did some things in those cars that were pretty much impossible on so many occassions that it makes him bigger than just the figures of WCs and race wins.

      The 2nd place at Monaco 1984, the six wins at Monaco (should have been 7 hadn’t he crashed out of a 50 some seconds lead one year), the pole lap at Monaco where he crushed his champion teammate Prost by over 1 second (unheard of), the 93 race at Donington where he went from P5 to P1 in the first lap…

      A guy like Schumacher for instance doesn’t really have that kind of legendary feats to his name, except maybe qualifying P7 in his first race and winning in Spa 1 year after his debut. He has 7 championships but for 2 of them in particular (2002, 2004) he only really needed to bring the car home to achieve them.

      Senna really made some of the cars and teams he drove for punch above their weights and that shows real quality (when he drove for Toleman, Lotus and that crappy ’93 McLaren for instance).

  • avatar

    I was lucky enough to attend a Q&A session with the director Asif Kapadia. Full video of the session is at where he talks about how the movie came together including the process of shooting a movie with only archival footage, getting access to Bernies archive, showing the movie to the Senna family, extended footage in the DVD/Blu-Ray, writing the music before making the movie, etc…

  • avatar

    Jack, which version is the one out in US theatres?

    The one I saw was the 1:46 cut, which I thought was well edited. The only mention of Alain Proust’s service to Senna after Senna’s death was one brief line about Proust being a founding member of Senna’s foundation just as the movie fades to credits.

    I know there’s a much longer version out there, which I’ve been told is not so tightly edited.

    • 0 avatar

      Proust was obviously a driver constantly in search of lost time…:)

    • 0 avatar

      Just clearing it up. ;-)

    • 0 avatar

      LOL, got me there.

      Seriously, I have the 1:46 theatrical release cut from months ago. Just rewatched it and I’m just wondering where some of these scenes that Jack’s talking about are.

    • 0 avatar

      The theatrical version in the US is the 1:46 cut. There is also a 2:46 “Blu-Ray” cut that isn’t so tightly edited and features all the talking heads that are noticeably absent from the theatrical version for the film. If anything, I find the longer cut even more powerful because you actually see Prost’s face, hear his side of the story, as well as hear from Ron Dennis, Frank Williams, and Dr. Sid Watckins, which you don’t in the theatrical cut.

  • avatar

    Ah! Jack! I see that you watched Monza. Good stuff, eh what?

  • avatar
    The Doctor

    Completely agree about the excessive use of subtitles – the film makers should have got Tom Cruise to dub over Senna’s voice (even the bits when he’s not speaking in foreigner). Having Tom’s name on the credits might have helped the film in the US.

    • 0 avatar

      Just like the F1 motorsport, this movie doesn’t need the US. I’m sure the director would take a couple extra million dollars but he clearly didn’t make the movie for the big mac crowd. F1 fans love it, lucky people who take a risk (or are dragged to see it) will like it, and Senna’s legacy is presented in a style befitting a world wide icon. Everybody wins!

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I suspect you are being sarcastic :) but plenty of American films are completely re-dubbed for foreign audiences and nobody seems to have an issue with the practice.

      • 0 avatar

        Plenty of people have issues with that Jack. Luckily here in the Netherlands the movies (and TV shows) just remain in english with Dutch subtitles but you’re right in most European countries they’re dubbed. I’ve learned through some studying abroad that many of the younger crowd (Germans, French, Spanish etc…all those countries where movies are dubbed) don’t take to kindly to the practise so maybe it’ll change in time.

        I think it’s partly the reason why (older) Germans and frogs have such funny accents when they speak english, because they rarely hear what the language is supposed to sound like.

      • 0 avatar

        I saw the documentary 2 weeks ago, it was great, here it was shown with spanish subtitles, which fortunately I could ignore since I can speak English and Portuguese, many movies in LatinAmerica are shown on 2 versions, subtitled or dubbed, specially those for kids.
        Enjoyed every part of the movie, and I agree the statement that he was aware he could die was overstated.
        The end was moving, I had the feeling that he even could have run for a political position if he lived longer, he was much appreciated on Brazil.

        Saludos from Mexico

  • avatar

    The traditionally exciting Monza race was not as exciting this year, but still good performances by Vettel, Button, Teflonso and Shuey.

    Senna did ok in ninth considering his 1st corner troubles but I think his uncle would have nailed Buemi earlier and then robbed Di Resta (for you ‘mericans; Dario Franchitti’s faster cousin) of 8th place.

  • avatar

    Thanks, Jack – I’ll underline the idea that it’s worth getting wife or S.O. to this movie. My wife has little tolerance remaining for motorsports, but read a favorable review in the New Yorker. She thought it was a great movie, in spite of having to sit through F1 footage. I suspect a part of what makes Senna legend is his enigmatic personality; you suspect that somewhere there is a man who has an intense personal life, but you don’t really get more than a glimpse.

    As to Schuey’s “performance” at Monza, it’s indeed sad when the best an ex-champion can do is to insist that his non-competitive Mercedes block one of the cars which could have argued for the lead of the race. Skillful blocking to be sure, but an impediment to the actual race.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Schumacher simply dominated Hamilton mentally for the entire time they were in proximity, from Hamilton’s blown restart to Schumacher’s drive around the outside to retake the position. Without DRS, Hamilton wouldn’t have had a chance… and Button seemed to have very little issue getting around the wide Mercedes.

      Just my opinion, I am not and never have been an open-wheel racer.

      • 0 avatar

        don’t think the re-start pass was down to anything other than a lapse in concentration on Hamilton’s part, anyone who was on top of things would have passed him. IIRC the same thing lost Vettel a race last year.

        tho it wasn’t mentioned, I believe LH’s setup was perhaps more compromised in terms of top speed (recall he & Button went different directions last year at Monza with downforce levels) than JB’s and given the Mercedes was set up with far less downforce/drag, running identical engines, LH didn’t have much chance to get around MSC on speed, even with DRS. there were concerns that would be an issue for Vettel (15kph slower than Alonso) but clearly wasn’t.

        the movie is quite good as well. there’s a longer theatrical edit which has been shown elsewhere, I’m hoping for a monster-length DVD release down the road at some point, assuming Bernie agrees to that much footage being released.

  • avatar

    The documentary was great, but as usual it paints Prost as the jealous little French villian, with the head of the FIA in his pocket. This has never been conclusively proven, and conspiracy theorists just point to them both being French as reason enough. It’s borderline racist.

    I suggest reading “Senna vs Prost” by Malcolm Folley. It tells a much more even-handed account from both sides of the argument. Yes, Ballestre had it in for Senna, no question, and wanted a French champion to rule the roost, so of course he fought Senna anywhere he could. But Prost (and others backed this up) never had much of a relationship with Ballestre, and never really liked him. Prost, in fact, had very little in the way of patriotism, moving out of France shortly after becoming an F1 driver, and mentioned that the French fans weren’t particularly high on him anyway, especially after his fight with Arnoux.

    Senna and Prost even became friends (of a sort) after Prost retired, Senna constantly calling him on the phone for advice and to talk about the state of F1.

    The real “villian” is a driver who would use a 190 mph racecar without fenders to intentionally run another driver off the road. A villian is a driver with a gigantic ego and sense of entitlement, believing everyone else on the track was beneath him and should move over immediately. And when they don’t, simply push them out of the way.

    Of course, a lot of fans prefer to call that “passion” and “excellence,” or some such.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed until the last paragraph. You single out Senna for pushing people off-track, as if no other champions have done same? For believing people should “just move over” when he was setting a dominating pace? For being a racing driver with an ego?

      I did get to see this in the theater last week- thought it was great, though yes, played up the rivalry to paint Senna in the best possible light. He wasn’t a perfect man by any means but racing is about speed and risk; he was arguably the fastest of his time, and he took the greatest risks with, generally, a high success rate.

  • avatar

    I realize this puts me in a distinct minority, but having seen the film, I missed the “talking heads” footage everyone else seems so grateful that this movie lacks.

    The passage of more than a decade lends perspective that the news footage of the time cannot.

    Some reflective current comments from fellow drivers (especially Prost) and team principals (especially Frank Williams) and even girlfriends could have added enormously to helping us understand more about this amazing man.

  • avatar

    Enough time has gone by to say that Senna is one of the greats probably the greatest, but that those of us who watched him race will remember that:

    – He was a sore loser.
    – He was a track bully.
    – Got unlapped by Eddie Irvine…

    Senna as a race personal was hugely respected but not necessarily likable as a person. He was no angel, I remember that for at least one of his pole positions, he figured out that he go do a faster lap if he missed the final chicane and just crashed the car across the line rather than actually try to drive one the road. This was before the days of grid penalties… That was how single minded he was.

    All of this doesn’t take away from the man’s legacy. Senna has hugely devoted to racing in the way that all prodigies are. Micheal Schumaucher had it in his prime and not so much any more. When your life is devoted to being the best at something, it makes you different from other people, and not necessarily likable. The difference is seen in the Schumaucher brothers… Ralf was a normal person like us, he didn’t have the singled mindedness of his brother and in the end, the lack of passion was evident in the last years of his driving.

    Think John McEnroe, Tiger Wood’s outbursts on the court… the very talented are different from you and I.

  • avatar

    I saw the movie last week in NYC, but wasn’t much impressed. The footage was grainy, since most came from TV video cameras. The producers covered so many categories of Senna’s life and career, that the movie felt superficial. It’s for a general audience.

  • avatar

    “Senna’s already lustrous reputation was burnished by death in his prime”

    Well, that’s the entire reason for the film. I don’t see them making a movie about Jackie Stewart.

    • 0 avatar

      Bernd Rosemeyer would qualify — but I suspect that far too few people even recognize his name.

    • 0 avatar

      Alberto Ascari would also qualify (2 time F1 world champion). He died on the racetrack at age 36, just like his father had died on the racetrack at age 36.

      Problem is there’s probably not that much footage of these ‘ancient’ guys around and not many people alive who would have known them (definitely not in case of Bernd).

  • avatar
    V-Strom rider

    Everyone will have their own view of Senna’s ranking in the F1 pantheon, and of the legitimacy of his tactics on and off track , especially in his ongoing battle with Alain Prost. For my part, I tended to be more of a Prost supporter (also Mansell and Hill), perhaps reflecting my own North-European heritage and my analytical mindset. There is no doubt he was among the truly great drivers of F1 history.

    However in my view the movie is a masterpiece. It presented a higly detailed and revealing portrait of an extremely complex and fascinating man who happened to be a star in the sport I adore. I was transfixed by it – especially the previously unseen footage such as the driver briefings and the candid pitlane sequence in the aftermath of Roland Ratzenburger’s crash and death. My fiancee, who has never attended a motor race in her life, was in tears at the end. I was glad to see that Prost’s regard for Senna was properly shown, both as a pall-bearer at the funeral, and his role in Senna’s charity.

    Sporting documentary movie making at its best – right up there with “When we were Kings” and “Salute”.

  • avatar

    As someone that never grew up with a favorite F1 driver, this movie was a bit of an introduction to drivers of that era. I had only heard of him before from Top Gear, which I feel did a better job at conveying how great of a driver he was. I never got that sense from the movie.

    On a technical note, the movie had many hard edits, going from an some footage of racing, with music in the background, right to no background music to an interview. I was starting to get into the drama of the scene then bam! it cuts back to an interview.

    Overall, a good movie for car fans, though my wife probably wouldn’t have had the patience to sit through the whole thing with me.

  • avatar
    Austin Greene

    I just saw the theatrical release tonight at my local repertory theatre. The movie is really good. Tears ran down my cheeks at the end of the movie – and I noticed the same with a retired guy I chatted with in the next seat. My wife even liked it too.

    I’ve ordered the uncut bluray from amazon to get the full deal.

    As they say in the Michelin Guide: worth the detour.

  • avatar

    Heads up: Senna is streaming on Netflix now.

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