We haven’t seen a documentary in quite some time, and The Flower has maybe never seen one in the theater. (I didn’t to take her to March of the Penguins; I just can’t see her taking the more tragic aspects of nature documentaries very well.) The Boy’s kind of a hard sell, as far as documentaries go–he has to be in the mood for it (as do I, really).
So, we went to see Moneyball. Once there, however, the theater was chock full. Of old people. So we moved over to the showing of Senna, the documentary on the great Brazilian Formula One racer, Ayerton Senna.
This is one of those documentaries that gets raves, and they assure you that even if you don’t know anything about racing, you’ll still find it a great documentary. And that’s true, mostly. (I’ll get to the exception later on.)
Ayrton Senna was a young, handsome, confident but not arrogant go-cart racer who moved up from go-cart and Formula Three racing to join the big leagues at the age of 24 (in 1984). There, he quickly makes a name for himself until 1988, when he moves to the McLaren-Honda team. His first team pairs him with an arrogant French driver, Alain Prost, and the two of them dominate Formula One racing.
Tension, dirty-pool and politics abound as the French man out-maneuvers Senna politically when he can’t beat him on the track. Ultimately, the team breaks up as Prost moves to a different team which is using computer-balanced cars that apparently take a lot of the skill out of racing.
The next year, after Prost retires, the F1 rules change, eliminating a lot of the computer gear and consequently making the races much less safe. Many crashes result, including two that lead to fatalities, Senna being one of them.
Now, I’m sure I’ve made hash of the actual history here. While the movie does a good job constructing a narrative about Senna–maybe too good, as this humble lover of God, and hero of the Brazilian people, struggles against corruption and favoritism against the evil (or at least dickish) other guy–for those of us who don’t even know what a chicane is, it was occasionally hard to follow.
The real story is more complicated, too, then what I gleaned from the movie. For example, there’s a race where Prost forces Senna off the track “accidentally”, and even when Senna comes back to win the race Prost runs to the refs to get him disqualified for missing a chicane. The movie shows this as an egregiously political move on a technicality the F1 judges have never enforced before.
Not only was he DQed and thereby eliminated from the championship, he was fined and suspended.
The next year, when the situations were reversed and Senna pulled a similar move on Prost, it’s sort of presented as an accident that Senna didn’t mind much. According to Wiki, Senna confessed later to having driven Prost off the road deliberately, but this isn’t shown in the movie. (And maybe it’s not true. I sure don’t know.)
Also, Prost ends up chairing Senna’s literacy institute after his death, and there’s a suggestion that Senna not just forgave Prost when he retired, but perhaps later came to appreciate their rivalry as a source of inspiration. It’s just not clear in the movie.
Anyway, it’s a good story, whether accurate or not, and I’m content to think well of this Brazilian hero and mourn his premature passing, even though I’m really murky on what changes precipitated the accident that killed him. And, we are reassured that Senna’s favorite track doctor was put in charge of making the races safe again, and no one has died in F1 since.
So, I did enjoy it, as did the kids, though they had to contend not only with unfamiliarity with racing terminology (I, at least, know what the “pole position” is from an early arcade racing game), but also partially obscured subtitles and heavy Brazilian accents. Also, they had a hard time telling Senna from Prost.
Even so, they did enjoy it. If you’re in the mood for a documentary, it’s a good one. It’s almost entirely source material, too, with tons of archive footage of Senna, and there’s a lot of car-camera shots which add a level of excitement you don’t usually get with documentaries. On the other hand, you do see a couple of fatal car crashes, which I found disturbing.