NRH’s Weekly Analysis: Senna’s human drama


I’m not a petrolhead. My father is pretty heavy into motorsports, Formula One in particular. I’ve never been grabbed by it myself but he pointed me towards Senna as an example of exactly what grabs people about the sport. From wrestling to football there seems to be layers of meta-narrative piled on, rivalries and underdog stories, that make it worth watching; more worthwhile than perhaps the sport itself. Formula One is about the pinnacle of engineering meeting the extremes of human reaction and dexterity. It too has its narratives and great tales, and Senna deals with a great human drama than can match any historical flick.

See, Senna does something interesting. I’ve watched it twice now and I’ve not been flummoxed by terminology or the technical vocabulary that’s associated with such a heavy sport. In finishing it I think I did understand exactly why it grabs people, just like any other sport, it’s the drama. Characters and genuine tragedies play out over years and years. You begin to be pulled personally into the mixture, just one of the many viewers to a grander human yarn.

The stage for Senna isn’t a boxing ring or grand set, it’s the race track. On this place so many players perform their part and build points towards their goals and dreams and aspirations. Senna’s absolute belief in God is a point of battle between him and Alain Prost, who I’ll discuss in a sec. An element of death hangs over the story, and if you know the tale it still seems to have been, through dramatic devices and sharp editing, intensified up to an emotional eleven. Alain believes Senna sees himself as immortal whereas Senna simply sees himself as being guided by God, that he has a greater duty both to his belief, himself, his country and his very creed to continue you on. Some of his last words we see are in discussion with someone who asks him to let them both quit and go fishing, to which he simply says that he has to carry on.

A sense of honor is built by the film, through showing the truth and beauty of the sport. Long stretches of simple racing footage blend into the over-hanging audio narration from journalists, participants and pundits. A narrative is knitted and cobbled out of some beaten up footage from Brazilian talk shows to sly camera shots of office complexes. All the while honor is in the mix and Senna is constantly shown to be driven, to be caring and to be resilient. In effect he slowly becomes a hero and this may be where things take a somewhat uncomfortable turn.

See, Senna is a real man. He lived and he did his racing thing. The film seems to have one hand in a biopic and another in the editor’s suite trying to build a drama. To do this there’s several measures taken. Footage is replayed with commentary as disputes seem to bubble upwards. To build Senna as a hero we also need a villain of sorts and this arrives in the form of Formula One politics. Even before we see Senna float about the fate of the F1 race-track he talks of the politics and its many figures populate and prod at Senna’s heroism, most notable Alain Prost. For a biographical film showing people who change ever so constantly, who were humans filled with compassion and humanity and life just like ourselves, the film does a brilliant job of turning them into characters. Alain Prost is given a character arc just like any other Darth Vader or Shakespearean figure, with his name being the actual ‘last’ showing up in the film and its context ties up our attitudes towards Prost into a different area.

I have to wonder if all of this is manipulative though, is it right to take these lives and mash them into narrative mix. Senna has its hands firmly on the film-making wheel (reel, get it?) rather than the historical one. It uses footage but for the amount it uses I wonder if there’s leagues of film that was discarded in favor of building a grand heroic story. One of the film’s most affecting sequences is, and this is a spoiler, his friends and family holding his racing helmet. When we all go six feet under we hope to be given our last respects. Senna’s last respects were his last moments, an icon of a sport that has led to many fatalities in its history. When they hold that icon of heroism, that artifact of humanity, I wonder if it mirrors the film in a way. A constructed symbol, a monument to human drama.

It doesn’t make it any less true though and the human drama remains. I wonder if it’s possible to get attached to a sport without any of the narrative; none of the names or faces or flags. If all the cars were blank white and all the drivers were anonymous, with no commentary, would the sport itself be worthwhile? It is pretty exciting to see things fly at hundreds of miles per hour against each other, but even attaching any kind of identity to these cars could possibly create a narrative, a tale in itself. Senna is about one story of attached human drama, masterfully tailored to create a narrative of tragedy.

Of course, Senna is still a biography of sorts. It knows when to splice facts and skips years. As I said with Gasland it’s difficult to argue where the history begins and where the fiction ends. Senna seems to have a perfect balance of the two, though I’m not clued in to the sport enough to truly judge. The emotional involvement I had with the film is also a point of discussion. The names and sport itself could be largely esoteric, yet none of the material ever felt isolating or unfriendly.

Ron Howard’s Rush releases later this week and I have to wonder whether or not it’s the right way to go about this. It’s probably just a ‘different’ way. Senna splices all kinds of historical footage and audio to creates its film, Rush simply bases itself upon the story and builds a fictional drama filled with actors and sets throughout. Senna is still, however, no less a film filled with lesser characters. Both will create stories of human drama and while it may be slightly manipulative, perhaps that’s how it might always be.