Starring: Michael Fassbender, Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher
Covering over 60 years of Formula 1 since the first world championship in 1950, this tells a story that starts off in the ‘golden’ era of the sport in its first decades when safety was nonexistent and one mistake could lead to death. The following decades of technological developments and increasing popularity lead to an inevitable questioning of the sports ethics, and this is a story of those that risked it all for success and those that risked even more to stop death being a regular occurrence of the sport.
First through the documentary Senna, and then with last year’s exhilarating Rush, one of the most glamorous and romantic of sports (and my personal favourite), Formula One seems to be a popular film subject again (and also proved to me that Ron Howard can actually make a good film). Now we have 1: Life on the Limit, an arguable inevitable cinematically released documentary on how a group of amateurs risking death (and often dying) racing at high speed has become the multimillion pound, super professional and relatively safe sport it has become now. Anyone who knows me would rightfully argue that I was always going to love this film; I love Formula One and spent my younger years studying its history, and am pleased to say with its use of previously unseen dramatic footage and interviews with those that were there certainly satisfies petrol heads like me.
With all attempts to avoid sounding patronising; 1: Life on the Limit also serves as a great documentary and insight to a bygone (and arguably more romantic era) when the risk of death was at every corner to those unfamiliar with the sport or its history. This is a film that does genuinely do justice to those that risked it all or tragically died trying in pushing themselves and the car to the very limits in pursuit of glory. The battle to make the sport safer was a tough one and this film brings to light just how much of a struggle that was.
Of course with over 60 years of history, one of the inevitable struggles of this film was to decide what to include and exclude. At just under two hours, there is so much this film has to cut out, but on the whole, speaking as someone who has a fair knowledge of the sport’s history; this film does justice to the sport’s most iconic and important individuals. The narration of Michael Fassbender (a confessed huge Formula One fan) is informative but never patronising. Interviews with people who were there at the time are often used to drive the narrative (like in Senna), but as there is so much to cover here sometimes for the sake of time his narration is informative and effective to suitably speed things along
This being a cinematic release, a clear narrative is always important and once again, I would say on the whole director and editor Paul Crowder does a great job. There are inevitable digressions about the importance of certain races, certain individuals or even certain fans, but overall Crowder maintains a solid and coherent narrative structure and there is never a feeling of information overload. This is an impressive achievement considering just how much history there is to cover here. Crowder covers some of the defining images of Formula One over its history, many of course inevitable tragic images.
Naturally some things are left out at the expense of others, and this is my one and only criticism of what is otherwise an exhilarating and enthralling documentary. This film’s mere existence may owe a debt to the existence of Rush, but as great a story as it is, the story of the 1976 season gets way too much coverage in my opinion. It of course deserves an inclusion, but not to the extent that it does in my view, there have been many almost immortal performances in the history of the sport, as great as this season and its two protagonists were. For me some of the drives of Ascari, Fangio and Moss in the ‘50s that were beyond heroic are very briefly mentioned, Gilles Villeneueve’s career deserves a far more in depth analysis and Tom Pryce’s death at Kyalami and the reasons for it in 1977 is tragically one of the defining moments of the history of the sport, but does not even get a mention. These maybe my opinions as a passionate fan of the sport, but in my view would have only enhanced the emotional involvement of an otherwise enthralling documentary.
Maintaining the high standard of recent Formula One themed films; 1: Life on the Limit offers an emotionally involving history lesson to those less knowledgeable on the history of this tragic and romantic sport. Being made with obvious passion and using previously unseen footage, it has enough to also please seasoned petrol heads, even though it perhaps devotes too much time to the already well documented 1976 season.