In the early years of Formula 1, Juan Manuel Fangio tore up the record books so sensationally that several of his records still stand today. The first official documentary on Fangio looks to remind the world about one of the most successful sportsmen of the 20th Century; it also wants to argue that Fangio’s history is F1’s history. Though it may not quite achieve this latter, loftier ambition, the documentary remains a fascinating exploration of a champion’s life.
Director Francisco Macri spends some time going over Fangio’s early life, but only enough to set the context. Macri’s own passion for racing and racing history shines through with a curated archive of videos, interviews and photographs from throughout the Grand Prix’s history. The documentary’s success hinges on how its hero is portrayed, and A Life of Speed goes to great lengths to emphasise the god-like reputation that Fangio earned. Clips of former F1 champions, team bosses, mechanics and friends of Fangio all paint an image of El Maestro as infallible. Macri wants you to bask in Fangio’s magnificence, and you won’t complain about doing so.
The problem is A Life of Speed doesn’t make itself accessible to those without solid prior knowledge of the sport, and doesn’t have the consistent emotional pull of, for example, Senna (2010) to make it not matter. Suitably detailed explanations of key people, terms and locations aren’t given and, without this context, the significance of what you are seeing can go amiss.
While there are some more moving moments, this tale of near-constant success makes it difficult for the viewer to be emotionally taken with the subject matter. That’s not to say that Fangio’s story is one without tragedy – a brief look at the 1955 Le Mans disaster provides a moment of poignancy and serves as a reminder of the dangers prevalent during Fangio’s era. The problem is that these reflections on his struggles almost feel out of place amidst a mood of admiration and awe.
As an account of a sporting legend, A Life of Speed is great. For F1 fans especially, there is great joy to be found in the interviews with multiple world champions and in the slow tracking shots guiding you through various racing museums. Like last year’s Le Mans ‘66, it takes a story that some may feel they know and encourages you to see it from a new perspective. Despite some clear flaws, Macri’s film is still a fascinating chronicle of one of the most talented drivers to ever sit behind the wheel of a car.
A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio story is out now on Netflix.