Formula 1 racing has enjoyed a storied history that involves some of the most colorful, flamboyant, and wildly competitive personalities ever seen in professional sports. It is a world filled with hard-fought rivalries and heartbreaking tragedies that, even for non-fans can take the story of racing far beyond the simplistic perception of men in oversized toys driving around in circles. In all sports, there comes the search for the dramatic, the human element, which defines the competition outside of the winners and losers, and gives the fans an element to be passionate about that goes deeper than lap speeds, pole positions, and engine mechanics. In Paul Crowder's appropriately fast-moving documentary '1,' the sport of Formula 1 racing is looked at through the lens of the men who lived to shape it into the worldwide spectacle that it is today, and who worked tirelessly to not only compete at its highest level, but also ensure that the sport's success wouldn't ultimately take precedence over the safety of the men who made the competition so enthralling.
Narrated by Michael Fassbender, the documentary begins with the early days of the sport, when its popularity was largely contained to the peripatetic groups of racers who traveled the globe in search of the next great test of man and machine. Crowder takes an incredible amount of archival footage and constructs a compelling narrative out of the first men to truly make a name for themselves as racecar drivers, and to build up a legitimate and passionate fanbase that would serve as the foundation of the world of Formula 1 for decades to come. The story told in '1' begins in black and white, when the men behind the wheels furiously drove what looked like kazoos with wheels around tracks at dizzying speeds. These men had the aircraft pilots of WWII to thank for the inspiration to test the limits of human engineering and endurance, and to turn it into one of the most widely watched spectacles in the entire world.
While Fassbender flatly narrates the goings-on in the world of F1 from the late '50s to the present, the film is primarily interested in a stretch of time between the late '60s to late '70s, when the sport underwent an enormous surge in popularity, which, perhaps not coincidentally, coincided with a string of devastating accidents that robbed F1 of some of its most prolific and admired racers, and called into question the true concern of the then-governing body: driver safety or profit? As '1' progresses, it moves away from archival footage of drivers like Graham Hill, Jim Clark, and Jochen Rindt, to focus more on drivers like Jackie Stewart, Bernie Eccleston, Sebastian Vettel, Michael Schumacher and even the recent co-subject of Ron Howard's 'Rush,' Niki Lauda. This transition allows Crowder an opportunity to narrow the scope of his subject from the enormous world of F1 racing to the issue of safety, and how the future of the sport and the survival of its drivers were ultimately handled by those who had once participated, and seen the devastation that could be wrought from unsafe driving conditions.
The middle section of '1' really follows the lead of Jackie Stewart, who is prominently featured as a major advocate in addressing the unwillingness of organizers to put forth the necessary steps to better ensure driver (and spectator) safety. Here, Crowder focuses on some of the most shocking accidents that potentially could have been avoided – or at least lessened – had things like rail guards, extinguishers, and, most obvious of all, medical personnel been made mandatory at each and every race. Through it all, Crowder balances the film's accusations at the racing world's establishment by showing how change was difficult even for the drivers who were risking their lives for a shot at glory, which further delayed progress in making the sport safer for everyone.
There is a shocking statistic regarding a stretch in 1968 where a driver died every month on the same weekend for four consecutive months. This kind of upsetting statistic not only demonstrated the danger of the sport, but it proved that, like most things, it takes a tragic event in order to make something safer. Not surprisingly, during this time, the sport was also experiencing unparalleled technological and commercial growth, a time of unprecedented advancement that made F1 even more dynamic, exciting, and lucrative. And while sponsors were flooding in to help fund these advancements in speed and aerodynamics, those same innovations made the cars twice as dangerous. Engine sizes doubled and cars became lighter, but little to no effort was made to ensure the driver could walk away should the unthinkable happen. It's no surprise, then, that many of the drivers began to think of themselves as gladiators: willing participants in a spectacle that carried with it a high probability of death.
After such tremendous focus on the '60s, '70s, and parts of the '80s, '1' makes a rather abrupt leap to the '90s to discuss the accident that claimed the life of Brazilian racing driver (and subject of his own highly-recommended documentary) Ayrton Senna. The event works to set off a short bookend that leaves the film on a positive note, as it briefly includes some text on how Formula 1 has not had a fatal accident for several years. While this is certainly an encouraging sign, it comes long after many stars of the sport lost their lives, and shows how such a progression toward increased safety was slowed in favor of making Formula 1 more viscerally exciting – and the prospect of death certainly played a major part in that exhilaration.
In that regard, '1' is as much a look into the psyche of sports fans, and the lurid fascination with danger and death, as it is a chronicle of the struggles that went in to making it less dangerous, without diminishing the excitement.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'1' comes from Millennium Entertainment as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. There are a handful of preview for other Millennium releases that will auto play, but they can either be skipped individually or you can jump directly to the top menu.
Although it uses a mixture of archival footage from several decades ago, as well as interviews shot for the sole purpose of this documentary, '1' makes excellent use of both and comes away with a nice, even-looking image that is great to look at. Most of the older footage of races certainly looks older, but its quality is generally quite high. There can be some issues with contrast, color, and grain, but all of that is related to how that footage was captured in the first place. Generally speaking, even the archival footage from the early to mid-'60s looks terrific, as the grain gives it a sense of timeliness that augments the discussion of the film itself.
Meanwhile, the interviews from the present have all been filmed in such a way that, though static, they never look flat or uninteresting. Subjects are framed quite well, and given unique backgrounds that help to add a little diversity to these fixed moments. Here, fine detail is tremendously high, rendering facial features and clothing textures with remarkable accuracy. Contrast levels are also quite high, producing robust blacks that offer crisp edges brilliant, but no too bright whites.
There is quite the mixture of footage offered in this film, and the disc does a terrific job of making it all shine.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix offers a decent sounding experience that is primarily focused on the narration and interviews, as it should be. This positions much of the audio from the center channel speaker, as well as the front right and left speakers. Music typically extends to the rear channels, offering a slightly more dynamic listening experience, but nothing that's truly immersive. Some of the footage offers a few moments of atmospheric elements, wherein the rear channels pick up some ambient noise, or offer a hand in some directionality or imaging, but it's nothing remarkable.
Overall, this is a good-sounding documentary that places emphasis where it needs to be, and doesn't really bother with too many flourishes. Music offers the best example of what the mix can do, and really does sound quite nice, though the balance it has with the narration and interviews can sometimes leave those doing the talking a little difficult to hear. If the balance had been better handled, this might've been a better sounding mix. As it is, it's just a bit above average.
'1' does not contain any supplements.
'1' is an entertaining and informative documentary that creates a unique correlation between the sudden technological sophistication and surge in tremendous talent, and the demonstrable rise of the sport's popularity. Of course, much of that also brought about a swell of devastating accidents that hung over Formula 1 like a storm cloud for far too long. While not necessarily an issues documentary, '1' does manage to take a fairly compelling look at what it means for a person to strap himself into a incredibly dangerous machine and to risk his life for a moment of glory, and the responsibility of the organization built up around such a line of thinking to make that fundamentally dangerous activity as safe as it can possibly be. Even though the disc only has slightly above average sound, and could have benefited from an interview with the director, or some further insight into how the project came to be, it does feature a very nice image and should be watched by those who have an interest in Formula 1 racing and those who don’t.