To Formula One junkies and everyone else who’s ever had a need for speed (with the tickets to show for it), the new documentary Senna will make a special kind of sense. That said, anyone curious about the death-defying sport of motor racing and the individuals compelled to participate in it will find plenty that’s engrossing in Asif Kapadia’s dramatically danger-fueled film.
Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna was (no pun intended) a driven individual, from his teen and young adult years as a karting champion to his eventual world championships on the well-lit international stage of Formula One. The handsome Senna parlayed his instant fame into celebrity girlfriends, which drew paparazzi attention while he quietly donated millions to impoverished Brazilian children.
As the end credits reveal, Senna was made in cooperation with the Instituto Ayrton Senna, which makes the film an authorized biography that certainly flirts with hagiography. Though Kapadia always takes his subject’s side in recounting controversies of the driver’s F1 career, the filmmaker also shows that Senna was not immune to a righteous temper, venial hypocrisies, and a slavishness to the allure of danger that characterizes championship racing.
In vintage voice-over, Senna sums up the problem at the heart of the controversies: “Formula One is political; it is money.” For the duration of his Formula One career, Senna found himself in direct competition with French driver Alain Prost for the coveted world championship; complicating matters, the two spent a tumultuous period together on the same racing team. Prost had the ear of fellow Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre—the top man responsible for governing racing events—which appeared to give Prost the upper hand in judgments that decided championships.
Despite being a contentious figure uncomfortable with the sport’s political gamesmanship, Senna worked miracles in a number of Grand Prix races, showing particular “genius in the rain,” as one commentator puts it. Senna’s unique brilliance shone in his skilled but scary recklessness on the track. The film focuses on Senna’s career, but in the process, a man defined by driving shows other facets: his vocal faith in God and his flag-waving patriotism, making him the pride of downtrodden Brazil.
Kapadia fosters a distinct “you are there” feeling for the races by composing his visual storytelling entirely of vintage footage, mostly derived from the Formula One archives. In particular, the onboard camera footage thrills, amounting to a documentary version of John Frankenheimer’s racing epic “Grand Prix.” Talking heads are out of sight but not out of mind: Kapadia employs vintage and latter-day audio interviews on the soundtrack.
By giving us insights into the strategies and work ethic and psychology of the legendary Senna, Kapadia brings to life his subject’s statement “Nothing ever comes easy.”
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]