SPORTING FILMS: SENNA
From robo-heavyweights to angry ice-skaters, sports movies occupy a peculiar and often frankly unwatchable place in the annals of Hollywood history.
Amid global lockdown, the PA news agency runs a daily rule over some of the films that might provide that much-needed sporting fix – and those that absolutely shouldn’t.
Ayrton Senna’s extraordinary and often combustible Formula One career is laid bare in this documentary film by Asif Kapadia, who would go on to apply similar treatments to Amy Winehouse and Diego Maradona. Kapadia adopted a new approach to documentary film-making, which resisted narration and instead involved welding the story through historical footage and home movie clips provided by the Senna family. The story follows Senna through his early days in Formula One, his world championship battles with his great rival Alain Prost, and his emergence as an outspoken advocate for increased safety measures, culminating in his tragic death at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, at the age of 34.
Although the majority of the movie is obviously occupied with Senna, there is plenty of fascinating pit-lane footage of the likes of Prost and team principals Ron Dennis and Frank Williams. Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the movie – particularly in the context of its tragic denouement – are the scenes which pit Senna in verbal jousts with the then FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre, who was reluctant to accede to Senna’s additional safety demands. The footage shines a thrilling light on the back-stage machinations prior to, and post, every Formula One race of the era.
‘Senna’ was raucously acclaimed by critics for its style, and its ability to cut through the chaos and fury of the Formula One world. Its fast-paced smash-cuts emulated the big race experience as well as providing both an exhilarating and suffocating evocation of Senna’s fame. ‘Senna’ won a BAFTA for best documentary, and broadened its appeal beyond F1 aficionados to bring his story to mainstream multiplexes. It is hard not to be won over by Senna’s driven and engaging character, an aspect of the movie which makes its finale more poignant. Seemingly the sole dissonant voice was that of Prost, who complained that he had been portrayed as a baddie, whereas he had actually made peace with Senna shortly before his death.
Kapadia’s movie set a new benchmark for the modern documentary, and led to eager anticipation for his two subsequent projects, featuring Winehouse and Maradona. It was no coincidence that the trio should all have been blessed with prodigious, almost uncontrollable talent, and suffered under the weight of so much fame at such a young age. This intense and fleetingly tragic trajectory was precisely what appealed to Kapadia, who would call the three films a trilogy. ‘Amy’, and particularly ‘Maradona’, would be equally rapturously acclaimed.