In the tradition of Senna and to another extent The Armstrong Lie, Irish documentary film Crash & Burn follows the life and career of a prolific racing sportsman, in this case Dundalk racing badboy Tommy Byrne who dominated Formula Ford and Formula 3 racing throughout the 1980s, despite a distinct lack of the wealth required to succeed in racing. Unlike Senna or the biopic Rush, the film isn’t a celebration of Byrne’s career, but a condemnation of the classist nature of the sport and a mourning of what-could-have-been. While it’s a valid and compelling criticism of a sport inaccessible except to the wealthy few, this leads to a sombre, melancholy tone that causes the film to feel sluggish throughout.
The film employs lots of well-researched, impressively sourced library footage of Byrne’s racing, across Europe and later America (and even Mexico after he had totally fallen from grace). It also makes use of animation to bring to life certain tense moments from across Byrne’s life for which there is no photographic record, whether it was starting last in his first foray into Formula 1, or his escape from a coke-addled Mexican drug baron surrounded by a bevvy of topless beauties.
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Throughout the impressively-directed piece, Byrne tells his story honestly and reflects on the partying lifestyle and repellent personality traits that may have led to wealthy sponsors disinterest in taking him on, in spite of his incredible record and constant victories. Considering our uniquely Irish inability to express ourselves, the film offers surprisingly frank confessions from Byrne’s friends regarding what they really thought of him (“He was a brat!” “It was all about him!” “You’d go out for beers with him and then he’d tell you he had no money!”). Byrne’s family are suspiciously absent outside of a few short snippets, but the general feeling is that despite his hedonistic lifestyle, Byrne is a lovable rogue.
However, the whole thing becomes a bit of a self-indulgent misery-fest after a while. Byrne himself seems to be over the fact that he never quite broke into fame and fortune in Formula 1, but the film itself seems insistent to paint him as a sad failure unable to let go of former glories, when a more rounded look of the man may have yielded a more interesting film.