Thursday 23 March 2017

Senna film recalls time sport mattered more than cash

The sight of a legend in celluloid reminds us of other tales worth retelling, says Paul Hayward

Senna, the film, strikes with elegiac force and is not alone in modern cinema in augmenting memories that were already safe and deep. Lurching out of the dark, the viewer asks why the hot new genre of sports documentaries is so unsettling and effective.

One answer is that they return us to the pre-corporate age when sport was a means of expression and not a branch of business. When Ayrton Senna defends himself as a pure "racer", who drove against other men and their machines, rather than a scoreboard, or a clock, there is a subconscious pull to another time, before Formula One was a game of computer technology and industrialised product-shifting.

The moment in history we are all attempting to identify is when sport became so commercialised that it could be redefined as a form of consumerism, an offshoot of showbiz. If the "core competency" of Manchester City is putting out football teams, as their chief executive once suggested, the spirit is always reaching out for proof that there was once sport for sport's sake, in the style of art.

To depict Senna as a Corinthian who cared nothing for the deal would be to succumb to the pathos of his death in a sport that disdained today's health and safety mantras. But the view he held of himself and his obsession is faithfully conveyed on celluloid. He was answering not to a series of commercial opportunities but a compulsion to race, to subjugate his contemporaries, starting with his main rival in a more glamorous era, Alain Prost.

To see the drivers arguing about safety barriers in pre-race briefings brings a sense of danger back into the nostrils. The long still shot of Senna's broken car on the gravel at Monza is enough to persuade us all that the daredevil age was bound to end. There is, though, something more formidable at work than amazement that such risks were routinely taken (and embraced). The footage of Senna's races feels like sport in a way that much of what we watch today fails to do.

Among the big hits of sports faction are The Damned United (much better as a book), When We Were Kings -- the prototype, about the Rumble in the Jungle -- the BBC's re-enactment of the Busby Babes and the Munich air disaster and Fire in Babylon, which reignites the story of the great West Indian cricket teams of the 1970s and 1980s. Invictus transferred John Carlin's account of South Africa's rugby World Cup win and its influence on post-apartheid society to the screen and is perhaps the most contemporaneous offering in the current run.

The uniting theme, though, is distance, in time, from today's dramas, which are played out from 12 camera angles, in minute-by-minute web blogs, Twitter and just about still in newspapers, so that the modern need for instant gratification leaves even the participants struggling to impart new insights when they sign lucrative memoir deals.

An implication from Senna, Munich and the Brian Clough retromania is that sport works best not in the frenzied present moment but in memory, where it deepens and gains richness. Another is that the pre-mass media age is a vast store of untold stories just waiting for the author or film-maker's torch.

Doubtless anyone who enjoys these archival trips will be drawing up their own list of where the researchers should head next. Suggestions, incidentally, will be gratefully received, because the new trend offers all sorts of opportunities to escape the present age of World Cups to Qatar, mass drug use in cycling and athletics, fixing in cricket and institutionalised financial exploitation in club football.

Few of the best stories that plead to be revisited stem from the past 10 years, though that may change if distance lends enchantment. If it is common purpose or higher ideals we seek, they could start with a filmic return to the great Welsh rugby union sides of the 1970s, or the local Celtic team who won Britain's first European Cup. The characters of Jock Stein and Bill Shankly have yet to be explored fully by long-form TV or cinema directors.

There are others, plenty of others. The skill is to avoid both the straight documentary talking-head form and cheesy re-enactments in which moderate actors recreate great scenes on a tight budget. The film Senna pulls off the hard trick of combining journalism with creativity. In the scenes where he wins the Brazilian Grand Prix for the first time we observe the closest thing to an epiphany ever captured in film about sport.

At the time it probably just felt like blockbusting "news". In today's context it takes you right through all the roadblocks of sponsors, deal-makers, agents, logos, outrageous ticket prices, corporate Olympic torch bearers, Fifa scandals and betting scams to the heart of one man's quest to hunt down a prize. It takes you right to sport, in other words, and not to money.

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