24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Senna

'Senna' opening brings Formula One story, and hero, to U.S.

August 12, 2011 |  3:04 pm


This post has been corrected. See below for details.

Ali. Pele. Jordan. Quiz most Americans about the most compelling single-monikered sports champions of the 20th century and you'll get a reliable set of responses. But Senna?

Even hard-core U.S. sports fans probably have little notion of Ayrton Senna da Silva, a Brazilian Formula One race car driver who rose to prominence in the 1980s and came to be regarded as the best driver of all time. But as Asif Kapadia’s new documentary “Senna,” currently playing at the Landmark Theatre, makes clear, we should probably clear some space in our sports pantheon for him.

Charismatic and complicated, droll and intense (and with an unexpected religious side), Senna cemented his legend by winning the Formula One season title three times. His mystique was deepened by his rivalry with Alain Prost, a cagey French driver who, as the film shows, was prone to manipulating the Formula One establishment to get the better of his nemesis.

Capping off the drama: Senna died on the track, suffering a fatal head injury in 1994, at 34, while leading the field at the San Marino Grand Prix.

The athlete, who with his on-course success and movie-star looks achieved fame of folk-hero proportions in his native country, was particularly known for his frank approach toward the über-political Formula One leadership. In one telling and humorous scene from archival footage, we see Senna, at a meeting with fellow drivers, questioning the head of the sport’s governing body over a safety issue, then sauntering out of the room when they begin giving him the runaround.

If his stance seemed fresh in the early 1990s, it comes off as iconoclastic in today’s world of celebrity athletes, where images are tightly managed.

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'Senna' rekindles personal memories of an intriguing athlete

August 12, 2011 |  4:00 am


In 1990, I spent two weeks at the Formula One circuits in Estoril, Portugal, and Jerez, Spain, writing about one of the most intriguing athletes to ever live, Ayrton Senna da Silva. Of course, all I wrote about, and all anyone who covered him could talk about, was his relationship with death. Senna’s belief in God and his mortality glowed like an aura about his impossibly handsome head, and every day on the track he did the unthinkable because he was undistracted: No matter what team, no matter what car, he considered it his only job to find his physical limit.

Asif Kapadia’s new documentary, “Senna,” which opens in L.A. on Friday and tracks the driver on an inexorable rocket ride to three world championships in four years, captures his soft-spoken intensity perfectly. Most moving is the comment of F1’s lead physician, Dr. Sid Watkins, who read that aura and, after the death of driver Roland Ratzenberger in 1994, begged Senna to quit and just go fishing with him. But Senna was locked into an exploration of being human that few will understand.

A story from the track, touched on in the film, makes that clear. I was in the press room in Jerez when suddenly on the TV came images of Martin Donnelly, a driver for Lotus, lying on the sunbaked track, still strapped in his seat after his car had disintegrated, his legs mangled in all the wrong directions. I wrote that he looked for all the world like an astronaut that had fallen to Earth, and he was dead. A trackside fireman touched his helmet and backed away.

I bolted for the track, and right beside me, running out of the pits, was Senna. Just the two of us. We ran to the fence and leaped up on it, clinging there. He had a stricken look on his face as we watched the paramedics bring Donnelly back, find a pulse, load him off to the hospital. Senna then walked back to the pits, suited up, and sat in his car, the mystical calm settling back over his face.

The track was cleared again for qualifying, and other drivers, including the fearsome Ferrari team with their new touch shifters, chose not to run. But the first one out was Senna. He didn’t seem angry. He seemed to be in a dialog, he and the car talking to something bigger, his Honda wheezing like an attack fighter. He eclipsed the lead time by an eternity, took poll position, then parked, unsuited, and walked to the hospital.

A doctor came out and announced that Donnelly would live. After a while, Senna walked out and I followed him back to the pits, where he burst into tears.

In 1994 at San Marino's Imola circuit, the day after Dr. Watkins tried to get him to quit, Senna flew into a wall in sixth gear and died of a head injury, apparently the victim of a car malfunction. The intriguing proposition made by Kapadia’s film, and what I saw with Senna, was that he never did find his limit. Given the right equipment, he could have gone faster. Even at the end of such an epic story, one is left saying, oh, what might have been.


Movie review: 'Senna'

Sundance 2011: Tears and thrills from the Formula One track in 'Senna'

A Formula One movie steps on the accelerator -- but with Ron Howard instead of Paul Greengrass

-- Dean Kuipers

Photo: Ayrton Senna, center, savors victory at the Australian Grand Prix in 1993, flanked by Alain Prost, left, and Damon Hill, right. Credit: Reuters

'Senna' looks to step on the gas in the U.S.

July 11, 2011 |  6:30 am


It wasn't very much past sunrise on Sunday morning in downtown Manhattan, but Dave Moore had already been going great guns for nearly two hours. Sporting a T-shirt that bore the logos of the McLaren Formula One racing team, he and about 150 other generously accessorized F1 fans were assembled in a Tribeca restaurant to watch the U.S.' only known live feed of the  the British Grand Prix. (The race would be broadcast on tape delay later that afternoon on the Fox Sports-owned Speed Channel.)

As he watched the race, the 29-year-old screamed when a pass was made, groaned when a pit stop didn't go as planned and generally became part of the chorus punctuating the room's tense silence as, onscreen, drivers jostled for position at 200 mph. 

"My favorite? It's gotta be Hamilton," the Ireland-born, New York-raised Moore told a reporter after the race has ended and the driver, Lewis Hamilton. has finished a disappointing fourth. "Yeah, he takes chances. But I'd much rather that than someone like [Felipe] Massa, who just sits there and doesn't do anything," Moore added, in a tone that suggests you'd have to be crazy -- or a Ferrari fan -- to disagree.

Moore is the kind of devotee that those releasing "Senna," Asif Kapadia's documentary about iconoclastic Brazilian race-car driver Ayrton Senna and his rivalry with French driver Alain Prost, hope can turn their movie into a crossover phenomenon. The Sunday event was coordinated by the company releasing the film, Producers Distribution Agency, in advance of its American release on Aug. 12. A cottage outfit founded by the sales agent Cinetic Media, PDA is developing a specialty in subcultural documentary; last year, it brought out the Banksy movie "Exit Through the Gift Shop," guiding it to $3 million in box office and an Oscar nomination. 

With "Senna," it's trying a tricky double move: target discerning and partisan racing fans such as Moore, who follow every subplot in the F1 season, while also aiming for a non-racing audience that has been  responding to the human story since the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. (Without giving anything away, "Senna" doesn't lack for emotional candor or tragedy.) The movie has already won audience prizes at several film festivals.

Sports movies are a risky bet in general and, as sports go, Formula One barely maintains niche status in the U.S. But those behind the documentary believe there are advantages to releasing it stateside. "Americans do love their cars, and it's also just a great story of a rivalry," Kapadia told 24 Frames a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, where he had come to screen the film for audiences at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

"And the fact that, unlike Europeans, Americans don't know how Senna's story ends I think will really help the film." (The movie is already the third-highest-grossing documentary in Britain, where F1 is hugely popular.)

Although it's NASCAR that among auto-racing circuits has the highest profile in American cinema -- five years ago, Will Ferrell had a mega-hit with "Talladega Nights" -- Formula One is experiencing something of its own moment in Hollywood.  "Cars 2" featured an F1 character (the John Turturro-voiced Francesco Bernoulli). And at a British Grand Prix qualifying run earlier in the weekend, the telecast cut to an interview with a familiar face in the crowd: Ron Howard, who came to the sporting event to research "Rush," his upcoming film about the famed rivalry between 1970s drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

PDA and Kapadia believe that the sport is ripe for a U.S. breakout. So the principals have been screening the bejesus out of the movie, everything from festivals to automotive shows. Although some campaigns for movies without pre-sold elements try to hold back and build mystery -- witness, at a very different budget level, the tactic employed by J.J. Abrams and Paramount for "Super 8" -- the belief here is that any exposure is good exposure, and could help the film reach a broad audience. According to PDA executives, it's paid off; an informal survey, they say, shows that women are responding more strongly to the film than men.

On Sunday, those behind "Senna" were doing their best to make sure the devoted were paying attention. During commercial breaks, the television commentators at the race in Britain shouted out to the closed-circuit New York audience audience while also plugging "Senna." And after the race's conclusion, organizers in the room handed out swag and showed clips, mostly to the delight of the crowd. Everybody in the room knew Ayrton Senna, and remembered a fateful 1994 race in San Marino, Italy. "I was a kid, chin in hands, unable to take my eyes of the screen that day," Moore said. Filmmakers can only hope their movie attracts the same rapt attention.


A Formula One movie steps on the accelerator

Tears and thrills from the Formula One track in "Senna"

"Super 8" tries to find its place amid the summer tent poles

-- Steven Zeitchik in New York

Photo: The race-car driver Ayrton Senna in "Senna." Credit: Producers Distribution Agency



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