When one thinks of the meteoric rise of Tommy Byrne, the subject of documentary Crash and Burn, thoughts turn to Icarus. Flying too close to the sun of Formula One racing before crashing back down the ranks to a driving instructor in Florida, dreams of being a Formula One champion shattered.

Byrne was often described as the motor racing equivalent to the likes of George Best and Muhammad Ali. Byrne was cocky and arrogant, from a poor family in Drogheda, and had all the raw talent to make it to the top in just over four years despite it all in a sport known for its elitism and particular etiquette.

The documentary, directed by Seán Ó Cualáin, follows Byrne as he revisits his time in the world of competitive motor racing. Beginning with the roots of Byrne’s upbringing in Drogheda, the story is expanded by commentary from figures from Tommy’s racing career including fellow racers, friends, and journalists.

It’s clear from the start that Tommy fancies himself a hard done by character, slow to acknowledge his own aggressive mannerisms or his off-colour humour as abrasive. His friends and commentators speak openly about Tommy’s persona and how he always made trouble for himself and those around him, and how he often lived off the generosity of others without expecting to give anything back.

Tommy Byrne demonstrates exactly which hands this young man will be getting if he doesn't step his game up on the track.

Tommy Byrne demonstrates exactly which hands this young man will be getting if he doesn’t step his game up on the track.

As we travel from Tommy’s upbringing to his time in Formula Ford all the way to America and Formula One this theme never fades, from making enemies of fellow racers and the upper management to spiraling into drug-dependency Tommy always maintains he’s the victim. And who’s to say he’s not? While the commentators agree that Tommy brought a lot of hardship on himself they all readily acknowledge he was pushed down, and eventually out, by the racing elite because they didn’t like his manner mixed with his talent.

All of this turmoil is set to clean, clear shots of Byrne and his friends as he visits old trophies and old sites. The use of the camera is tight and each shot is purposeful, if not just lovely to look at. When not out on the track the shots of interviewees are close and focused, each in their own home environment, subtly reminding that place and background matter in the story of Tommy Byrne, a man whose social graces and lack of money (costs reach easily into the millions for one race) to stay at the top.

The score of the film is simple, enough to set the tone without any grand orchestral cacophony or to-do. After all, that just wouldn’t suit the man behind the movie. Animated sequences fill the space where Byrne and the film crew cannot record; scenes of the past. Particularly Tommy’s first night of dangerous drug use and later private suffering. These short cartoons are a satisfying break from the pattern of an interview to racing track to car to another interview etc. and keep the film moving at a fresh and interesting pace.


Tommy Byrne racing in Formula 3 in 1982.

Across its entirety, the film is just dripping with the Irish sense of humour and sharp tongue. Tommy’s longtime friend openly calls him a bastard, or some other typically Irish expletive and you just can’t help but find it funny. It brings it all home that this is the story of an Irishman who tasted success, and yeah, he’s a little bitter about it but overall the humour derives from his misfortune at times and it keeps the documentary from getting completely bogged down in misery and woe.

Crash and Burn is as tight and fast a ride as any of Tommy Byrne’s races, mixing the sombre details and the glittering heights of his career with the droll Irish mannerisms and perspective that makes a story like Tommy’s. It’s a documentary that’s true to its subject matter and its very tone reflects the man himself.

Conor O’Doherty