Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Another Lap With "Senna"

This is somewhere between an extension and a counterpoint to Rough Justice's semireview yesterday. We might as well get the counterpoints out of the way first-- it won't take too long because I basically agree with RJ. My points of difference have largely to do with the implicit politics of the film: I'm not quite comfortable imputing the disdain for Prost or the out-and-out beatification of Senna. Don't get me wrong, it was certainly hagiographic, and uninterested in interrogating the man's self-presentation. Senna speaks for himself in the interviews that comprise the fabric of the film. That is certainly a political choice, but such a light editorial touch gives the audience latitude in forming their own judgements. The film's sins of omission are almost entirely explainable through its narrow focus on the life of Senna the driver rather than Senna the man. Prost comes off as an antagonist because that is the role he played in Senna's career, and many of his achievements, including his first two championships, happened when Senna was a young driver without a competitive car. Only almost, mind you.
The reason this is a post instead of a conversation is because of the rivalry between Prost and Senna. It was a rivalry of classical form and bitter intensity and it was the centerpiece of the film. The two became teammates on McLaren in 1988, and from the first season, the two found themselves at odds. They were very possibly the best two drivers alive at the time, and McLaren had the fastest car.1 They were each other's truest peer, and each had far too much ego and competitiveness to subordinate. They also embodied a stylistic contrast that is very easy to lend moral weight: Prost was nicknamed "The Professor" for his methodical, intellectual style and was happy to finish 5th if it would serve his needs in the season's points tally; Senna was brash and intuitive behind the wheel and drove every race for first; Prost played the political games of F1 as well as anyone and was close with FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre; Senna was willfully ignorant of the games behind the game. They mirrored each other historically as well as personally in a pair of deeply controversial crashes in successive Japanese Grands Prix. Their mutual hatred and respect formed a deep bond between them; I think Prost would have done anything to save Senna's life for the same reasons Batman saved the Joker.2
1: Between Prost and Senna, Team McLaren won 15 of 16 races that season.
2: And vice versa, these being comic books.
With its complex subject, epic rivalry, and stunning racing footage, "Senna" is one of the most beautiful and compelling sports documentaries I've ever seen, a fantastic choice for ESPN films to follow the 30 for 30 series, and for what it's worth a full-throated recommendation from the No Fours crew. Keep an eye out for it, in the theater if possible.

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