Sunday 19 September 2021

Film Review: Schumacher


Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of my lifelong affinity for Formula One; so when Netflix dropped a two-hour documentary about seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher earlier this month, it goes without saying that I'm going to talk about it.

As you would expect, the film charts Schumacher's rise and rise during the early nineties, starting with his astonishing debut at Spa 1991 and continuing through his early success with Benetton and initial struggles with Ferrari. 

Interspersed into the terrific archival footage are a wealth of talking heads from a veritable who's who of Formula One figures from the past 30 years; Jean Todt (former Ferrari team boss), Ross Brawn (former Ferrari technical director), Bernie Ecclestone (former Formula One overlord), Flavio Briatore (former Benetton team boss) and James Allen (commentator and Schumacher biographer).

The Schumacher family are featured extensively too; wife Corinna, father Rolf, brother Ralf, daughter Gina-Maria and son Mick. The filmmakers even spoke to a handful of Schumacher's fiercest on-track rivals and teammates; Mika Hakkinen, Damon Hill, David Coulthard and Eddie Irvine. Even Sebastian Vettel, for whom Schumacher served as a mentor in his latter years, is featured – albeit for one or two lines. 

So it goes without saying that the filmmakers did their due diligence; this isn't some cheap and nasty doco that doesn't tick the boxes and actually takes the time to speak to the people who there, who saw it happen or rubbed shoulders with the subject. 

For fans such as myself, there's a lot to like here – especially the archival footage of what many would consider one of the sport's golden eras. After a little bit of insight into Schumacher's childhood, the film dives right in and charts Schumacher's rise to glory; his solitary outing in the green Jordan 191, his immediate switch to Benetton, the seismic shift and fallout from Ayrton Senna's shocking death in 1994, his courtship by Ferrari etcetera etcetera. 

The archival footage is stellar stuff; interviews and onboards from the time that I'd never seen before and offer a rare glimpse into an era of Formula One I'm too young to remember fully. Getting to see Schumi (as he was known) carve around fearsome tracks like Suzuka in his iconic scarlet Ferrari, complete with the screaming V10 audio, is special. 

Schumacher covers a lot of ground in a short period of time – by nature of the man's 20-year career, it has to. Crucially, this means it hops, skips and jumps through some big moments. Adelaide 94 and Jerez 97, for example, are two of Schumacher's most controversial moments, but here they're only touched on very briefly. Silverstone 99 is featured – but the fact that Schumacher broke both of his legs in the crash and had to spend months on the sidelines is, well, sidelined. 

The film builds to a crescendo at Suzuka 00. After years of toiling at Ferrari, the eventual success is framed as the ultimate moment of catharsis. The following years of domination are resigned to a mere montage, with key characters like Rubens Barrichello or Fernando Alonso not being mentioned at all. Imagine that! A Michael Schumacher documentary that doesn't mention his longest-serving teammate or one of his fiercest rivals even once. 

To be honest, I came away with mixed feelings on this one; while I was never a huge fan of Schumacher, I have come to admire and respect his astonishing achievements, in spite of his controversial traits. This film celebrates the former while downplaying or glossing over the latter. It's a rose-tinted retrospective aimed at those who are already experts or fans, that offers very little critique or condemnation. Austria 02 and Monaco 06 aren't even covered, further downplaying his dark side.

After the runaway success of The Last Dance, I can't help but feel that the same format would have served Schumacher better. An episodic structure that took the time to delve deeper into a specific incident, rivalry or relationship, would have created a more rounded, more comprehensive view of one of Formula One's biggest and most divisive personalities. 

The Verdict: 6.5/10

As it stands, Schumacher is a good but far from great retelling of the champion's glittering career. Fans looking for new insight or angles they haven't seen before might be disappointed; and newcomers looking for the definitive Schumacher story will get the basics, but not the full story. 

Schumacher is now streaming on Netflix

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