Wednesday, October 3, 2012

And You May Find Yourself Behind the Wheel of a Large Automobile

Film: Senna; Drive
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t pay attention to sports at all. But it wasn’t always this way; I used to be as into sports as the typical guy. I was a big football fan and would watch even a bad football game (American football for those of you outside of the U.S.) over just about anything else. I gave up on sports a few years ago and have never looked back. I’m fine not caring about them. Even when I was a sports fan, though, I never cared at all about any sort of auto racing. NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One…it was all the same to me and I didn’t care about any of it. That makes a film like Senna an especially hard sell for me.

The film is a collection of archival footage of the life of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna with voiceovers from people who knew him and members of his family. While there is some discussion of Senna’s early life, the film really concentrates almost entirely on his Formula One career, and even here touching only briefly on his first few years on the circuit. A good deal of the story focuses on his rival with some time teammate Alain Prost, on Senna’s three world championship titles, and, ultimately on the crash that took his life and its aftermath.

This is not a particularly easy film to write about simply because I’m not sure what to write. It is, essentially as I said, the story of Senna and his career on the racing circuit. Despite the fact that I have zero knowledge of racing in general, Formula One in the specific, or any concept of the history of the sport, I found Senna completely engaging as a film. However, since it is made up entirely of archival footage, it leaves little to talk about except how director Asif Kapadia arranged the information, what he may have left out, and his use of the material that is here. After all, Kapadia in general is assembling this film rather than shooting it. Everything else is essentially narrative.

The biggest omission, evidently, comes in the tale of the relationship between Senna and Alain Prost. The two were teammates for a short time, but there was a great deal of bad blood between them. It can possibly be said that each won a Formula One championship by forcing the other into either a foul or a crash. What isn’t in the film is that the pair evidently repaired the bad blood between them in the months prior to Senna’s death. Instead, Prost and Formula One director Jean-Marie Balestre are left to serve as the villains of the story being told.

Where I’m going to split the dog with the filmmakers here is in the use of some of the footage near the end. I’m of two minds in the use of the footage of a couple of fatal accidents including Senna’s. On the one hand, it certainly seems important enough to include, and were this a fictional story, we’d certainly see the wreck if it was something important to the story. On the other hand, though, this is real life, and these are really men dying. When Roland Ratzenberger’s car partially vaporizes and we see his head lolling in the cockpit of his destroyed car, that’s really the man dying. It’s not a stunt person or a special effect. It’s really this man’s death, and there’s a part of this that feels like I’m watching a snuff film. Like I said, I’m not sure how I feel about all of this.

Senna is ultimately a character study of a man who spent his life in pursuit of going fast, of pushing the envelope of speed on the F1 circuit. He comes across in the film as a decent guy, as the sort of guy that would be easy to cheer for, and whose death is ultimately tragic because of how much of a fluke it really was. Ayrton Senna is still the last F1 driver to die during an actual competitive race, something at least in part attributable to the safeguards put in place following his fatal accident. His life, while short, is interesting and worth the watch.

The only thing Senna has in common with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is that both films focus on a guy who makes his living behind the wheel. Drive is a much more traditional film, and an action/crime film at that. I’ve heard it described as “The Transporter done by an artistic director,” and that’s not a bad piece of description. I have seen Refn’s Bronson, though, and I’m not 100% sure I want to crown the guy as an artist based on that film at least.

In Drive, our main character (played by Ryan Gosling) is unnamed and referred to simply as “Driver” throughout. He is a part-time mechanic, part-time stuntman, part-time getaway driver, which is naturally what the film is going to focus on. As a wheel man, he has a couple of standing rules. He never works for the same people twice. He also gives criminals five minutes to do their work. If they’re late getting to the car, he leaves them. If they’re in the car on time, he’ll back them up for the whole ride and get them to safety. We see one of these jobs at the start of the film and then see him on a movie set, giving us at least two parts of his career.

Not long after the first job we see, the driver meets his neighbors, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). There’s a little spark between the driver and Irene, but it soon comes out that she is married, her husband is serving time, and that he is due to get out soon, three facts that kill the romance pretty quickly. Nonetheless, the driver is willing to help out Irene whenever he can.

Evidently, that help includes assisting her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac). Standard owes some money to a few rough people for protection he received in prison, and now it’s time to pay up. His job is to rob a pawn shop, and the driver agrees to help. Naturally, it all goes to hell, and it all comes back to a trio of men the driver already knows: Shannon (Bryan Cranston), his sometime boss and job connection; Bernie (Albert Brooks), a mid-level criminal; and Nino (Ron Perlman), a wannabee gang lord who really only has the sudden anger as a necessary character trait.

Drive is an interesting film for a number of reasons. On the one hand, it’s a straight action film, with some sequences that are surprisingly graphic and hard to watch. These are few and far between, but they happen suddenly and with little warning, which is one of the reasons they work so well. On the other hand, it’s pretty obvious that Refn is trying to do more with the film. There are some unusual choices in film editing here—but they are effective. Refn is a smart director, giving us just enough gore and splatter to keep things interesting, but never so much that it becomes overwhelming or too disturbing. Well, okay, it’s a little disturbing.

Drive is one of those unique films that just about everyone seems to like. The arthouse crowd likes it because Refn is developing a reputation as sort of the next big thing to come out of Denmark. The action crowd loves it because there are scenes of sudden and brutal violence, lots of high-speed driving, and some good stunts. It’s a great midpoint between mindless action fair and pretentious art film.

If anything, it could use a little more action. The pre-credit sequence is excellent. It’s exciting and tense and gives us an excellent sense of the driver. And then the film tails off. Certainly what happens is important and will be important again at the end, but in the moment, there’s not a lot that’s very exciting. I’d have loved to have seen another job thrown in, maybe one in which is clients miss the deadline and he’s forced to head off.

However, the third act pays for all of this. There’s violence and car chases and some nasty death sequences as the second act winds down and gives way to the third. For the action movie junkie, the last 20 minutes or so are pure bliss and are really worth the price of admission.

Long story short? Everyone who hyped Drive to me was pretty much right. It’s very good, potentially great.

Why to watch Senna: A fascinating look at a world most of us never really see.
Why not to watch: Mixed feelings about seeing the actual footage of fatal accidents.

Why to watch Drive: A great lead character and sharp, sudden violence.
Why not to watch: After the opening, it stays in second gear too long


  1. I agree with you on Senna showing that footage. It bugged me. For me this followed your basic documentary formula. In fact, it was practically the same movie as The King of Kong: establish good guy, hero and lead; establish villain, establish that ruling body sides with villain because he's established; show villain sabotaging and/or avoiding hero; show hero triumphant. I liked Senna, but it wouldn't have come to mind to add it to the list.

    I liked Drive, too. I was greatly amused by all the youngsters who praised Drive for its "originality" when it is essentially an uncredited remake of Shane, right down the ambiguous ending. "Same as it ever was."

    1. Every new quarter, I ask my students what their favorite movie is. Every now and then, someone will toss out Disturbia, to which I reply, "I liked it better when Hitchcock made it." Really, there aren't that many plots to toss around.

    2. Now that you mention it, I had to point out that Disturbia was essentially Rear Window to some people. I had forgotten about that (or maybe I had just blocked it out.)

  2. I don't have much to say about Senna except that I enjoyed it, despite not being much of a racing fan.

    I'm not sure why it's on the List. I can think of a few other documentaries I've seen in the last few years that I was really really into quite a bit more than Senna. Like No-No: A Dockumentary, about the major league baseball player who pitched a no-hitter while on an acid trip. Or The Search for General Tso, a documentary on Chinese restaurants in America. Or What Happened, Miss Simone?

    1. Life Itself is the biggest documentary miss I can think of.