The first thing I noticed I as entered the cinema was that, surprisingly, it was three quarters full. Granted, we had gathered for a documentary on Ayrton Senna, the Ayrton Senna, but the general American public has rarely cared for Formula 1 (or, for that matter, any sport an American didn’t dominate). I could only assume the San Francisco Chronicle had given the film, Senna, a rave review.
Secondly, as someone who rarely leaves the house for anything other than work or food, I realized there are way too many bloody previews at the cinema these days. Surely sometime soon, in this instant internet age, the cinema preview will disappear, but for now it’s a terrible nuisance to bear. Coincidently though, one of the previews featured Finding Joe, a project centered around the ideas of Joseph Campbell.
As a lover of all things Joycean, I hold a respect for Campbell’s expositions on mythology, but this film espouses only the silliest and infantile self-help, self-empowerment nonsense. The Campbell quote chosen to the promote the film reads, “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.” Further intellectual baby-food continues along the lines of “be your own hero” or “live your own adventure”. Despite the shallowness of the preview, I entered into my second viewing of Senna (first time on the big screen) with thoughts of myths, heroes and adventures.
In motorsport there is no greater myth than that of Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian driver featured in the the greatest rivalry in Formula 1 with Alain Prost (with whom, as a team mate, they won 15 out of the 16 races in 1988 season), sensationally captured three world championships (while Juan Fangio’s record of five held intact) and remains the last Formula 1 fatality. Handsome, intelligent and charismatic Senna proved a magnet not only for fans but for media attention.
The film itself unapologetically favours the myth of Senna. It opens with romantic images of a young Senna, just arriving in Europe to compete on the karting circuit. The voice over, an older, wizened Senna, nostalgically recalls these favourite moments of his career. “Pure racing. No politics. No money.” It’s difficult not to think of Ulysses – the hero in a foreign land overcoming obstacles on his path back home.
The film, however, does not center around winning the World Championship in 1988 as a metaphorical home. While this is undoubtably a major moment in his career, the film instead crescendos up to a literal return home – his first home win at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991. In his first seven trips back home Senna faced three retirements, a disqualification and an eleventh placed finished – not the happiest of hunting grounds for the national hero.
In ’91, however, Senna came out of the blocks charging, winning the first four races of the season. In Brazil he dominated the weekend, qualifying on pole position and leading easily for sixty of the seventy one laps. Suddenly he lost fourth gear and then with a few laps left he lost third and fifth gears, leaving him to maneuver a Formula 1 race car around a demanding track in only sixth gear. The physical strain left Senna with terrible muscle spasms. “The pain was absurd,” recalled Senna. So much was the agony that Senna failed to make it back to the paddock after winning and race marshals had to pry his hands off the wheel and help him take his gloves off before assisting him into the medical car.
Finally back in the paddock, Senna explained his condition to McLaren team principle Ron Dennis and implored crowding reporters not to touch him. Amidst all the chaos in the garage, Senna looks for and cries out for his father to embrace him. “Gently, gently” he whispers as his father gets close. Moments later, on the podium, Senna struggles to lift the winner’s trophy, has to gather his strength, and finally thrusts it in the air with a solitary right hand.
In a day and age where Formula 1 drivers stepping up to the podium look as though they’ve finished a workout in the gym, Senna appeared as if he had barely made it through a battle. Everything about Formula 1 racing during that time – reliability issues, manual H-gearboxes, driver safety – made success just as much a physical accomplishment as it was mental. Whereas today the physical contest seems to have disappeared and victory is awarded to those possessing video game-like concentration.
In the end, Senna goes on for close to two hours with these sort of heroics. There’s no need to detail them all as the film does that well enough. Of course what we’re getting is only one side of the legend. While the film frames Senna’s great passion as his tragic flaw, it glosses over, or just completely ignores, negative aspects such as his playboy reputation (a devout Catholic divorcing his wife, dating the 15 year old Adriane Yamin and relationships with celebrity models Xuxa and Adriene Galisteu) and his shocking crash into Prost at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix, still condemned by many motor sport journalists as unforgivable.
It is somewhat fitting to revisit Senna just as the 2011 Japanese Grand Prix has taken place. Amidst all the clamor around Sebastian Vettel picking up a second consecutive Championship, much of the weekend was spent celebrating the track itself, the famous Suzuka Circuit. There are many reasons for this, as it is one of the oldest non-European tracks and the site of the crowning of twelve World Champions, but in truth Suzuka is where Ayrton Senna held court. He won in 1988 and 1993, came second in 1987 and 1991, colliding with Prost in 1989 and 1990 and only once retired unspectacularly in 1992 with an engine failure on the third lap. The Japanese Grand Prix showcased all the good and bad of Senna. He fought, he won, he crashed, he lost, but most importantly he raced really damn fast and really damn hard.
Of course it is almost impossible to discuss Senna’s life without mentioning his death. He died at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, a young man struck down too early in a sport where many young men had been struck down before him. The loss for Senna’s family, friends and fans has meant the sport of Formula 1 received a legendary matyr. I won’t go into the details, as the film does that well enough, but suffice to say Senna’s tragic death sealed his iconic status.
As the crowd filed out of the cinema it was hard not to think that everyone, Formula 1 fanatic or not, had been affected by the film. My own thoughts returned to the silly preview before the film. Finally, parity (or rather imparity) was restored. The hero’s image lingered on the silver screen, while the audience merely dispersed into the evening.