Senna: My New Favorite Racing Movie. How Does it Match Up with Yours?

Until I saw Senna, the 2010 documentary that beautifully paints a most intimate, insightful, inspiring and ultimately saddening masterpiece about the legendary Brazilian F1 driver, Grand Prix was my all time favorite racing movie.

But now, without any loss of luster, John Frankenheimer's 1966 epic, the winner of three Academy Awards, has dropped a position.

Senna is a brilliant film about Ayrton Senna da Silva and his remarkable, meteoric 10-year career at the pinnacle of motor racing, how he got there, who he was and what he valued.  It documents an angst-filled relationship with fellow driver Alain Prost and the FIA, his record of excellence and unparalleled expertise in a race car, his deep religious beliefs, love for family, philanthropic efforts and wonderful humanity.

What makes this documentary so special is how director Asif Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey could only tell Senna's story via existing footage gathered from a wide variety of sources, but predominately from ESPN as the film was produced by ESPN/Working Title and distributed by Universal Pictures/Disney Pictures.

So instead of being able to start with a blank canvas or script the film would have to be the brilliant assembly of a puzzle, blending decades of archived footage, interviews and home movies with a sensitive, compassionate score in order to accurately present how a shy, gifted young racer from South America conquered and eventually transcended the highest level of motorsports.  Including the shock, sorrow and impact from a death that came far too early, on the race track, a tragedy broadcast live to more than 300 million race fans.

Senna hit all its marks.  It was released to international acclaim, boasting 'best' awards from the Sundance, Los Angeles, Melbourne International and Adelaide Film Festivals.  The Guardian's (United Kingdom) Steve Rose, wrote "With so much recorded footage of Formula One available, it has been possible to fashion Senna's story as a live action drama rather than a posthumous documentary. We're not so much hearing what happened in the past as seeing it happen before our eyes."

There are two versions of the movie, the original extended length cut in Portuguese and the theatrical version narrated by Josh Brolin.  Reviewers, presumably those who know that language, seem to feel the longer movie is even better than the English edit. I do not know Portuguese but I certainly don't feel as if Senna was lacking in any way.

After all, the movie I saw is now at the top of my Top 10 Racing Movie list:

1. Senna (2010) -- See above.

2. Grand Prix (1966) -- James Garner, Yves Montand and Eva Marie Saint in a melodramatic epic featuring produced track action and racing sequences that may never be duplicated.

3.  Heart Like a Wheel (1983) -- Bonnie Bedelia and Jeff Bridges as NHRA drag racers Shirley Muldowney, the sport's first female champion, and Connie Kalitta as her mentor and lover.

4.  Winning (1969) -- Paul Newman, Robert Wagner, Joanne Woodward and Robbie Benson at the Indy 500; the movie that sunk the real life racing hook into Cool Hand Luke.

5.  The World's Fastest Indian (2005) -- Anthony Hopkins portrays New Zealander Burt Munro in this story of his 1967 quest to set a land speed record at Bonneville on a 1920 Indian motorcycle.

6. The Big Wheel (1949) -- Mickey Rooney in a wonderful black and white B-movie production about a young racer who goes from short tracks and midgets to the Indianapolis 500.

7. The Dale Earnhardt Story (2004) -- For a low budget TV movie from ESPN and shot in less than three weeks this tribute to The Intimidator starring Barry Pepper is a must see.

8. Le Mans (1971) -- Steve McQueen's homage to Le Mans racing, fraught with script, logistics and production problems but still a cult classic worthy of a place in every race fan's collection.

9. Greased Lightning (1977) -- Richard Pryor plays Wendell Scott, the first black driver to race in the premier NASCAR division; also starring Beau Bridges and Pam Grier.

10.  The Last American Hero (1973) -- Jeff Bridges, Valerie Perrine and Geraldine Fitzgerald in a film based on Tom Wolfe's book about moonshiner-turned-NASCAR legend Junior Johnson.

Honorable mention:  Cars (2006) -- State of the art digital animation, the vocal talents of A list actors and racing legends plus a decent, moral-to-the-story script that works for all ages.

There are at least two new racing movies in the works, one a narrative drama from Senna writer Pandley about Ferrari drivers Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins in the late 1950s and early 1960s, complete with manufactured love interest; the other from Oscar winning director Ron Howard and scripted by Peter Morgan (Nixon) about the 1976 F1 season and the championship battle between Ferrari's Nikki Lauda and McLaren driver James Hunt.

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