Engaging, well-paced and an absorbing behind-the-scenes account of a world many are unfamiliar with, the race-car documentary "Senna" by director Asif Kapadia, is not unlike a sports doc you'd see on ESPN (think the excellent and compelling "30 For 30" series), but thanks to Universal, it is being targeted directly at the art-house crowd.
For this writer, and probably this entire site's staff and plenty of its readers, race car driving has never been a sport of much interest. Sure, it's exciting to see things go fast (Formula One cars are the fastest in circuit-racing, reaching speeds of 220 mph), but noisy machines driving around in circles over and over again just never exerted much allure. And while the absorbing documentary may not totally convert us to the sport itself, it makes its appeal a lot more understandable. Of course, for compelling subject matter, you can't do much better than Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One world champion widely regarded as one of the best F1 drivers of all time (in fact, a clever poster places him in the company of well-known sports greats such as Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Pelé).
Opening with dusty archival footage of Senna driving go-karts, the picture's introduction is a concise dossier on the driver that illustrates his gift and love for the sport and brings us up to speed on how he got to where he got to. Passionate and yet humble with a mannered and understated way of speaking, in discussing the early halcyon days of go-kart racing when he first started racing competitively, there's a palpable struggle in Senna's words. The message rings loudly and becomes a theme that haunts the rest of the picture: he laments that he will never reach that level of "pure" racing again, free from the bureaucracy and political game-playing that seems ingrained in Formula One racing.
Born to a privileged Brazilian background, Senna grew up with supportive parents who saw that racing was more than just a mere hobby for their son. He lived for it. And while we do have some issues with the film (more on that later), it's refreshing to see a charming, heroic and immensely talented sports figure (worshipped in particular by Brazilians) presented as a flesh-and-blood human being with full-bodied contradictions and complexities. Like all great athletes, Senna wanted to win every time he raced, and he was known as an aggressive, but not unsafe, driver who could drive in the rain better than anyone else in the sport. But his modesty and pure love of racing shines throughout. He was confident, not cocky.
The driver went on to win three Formula One Championships, 41 races, and 80 podiums in 162 career races. By all accounts, and the film does a great job of laying out the rules of the sport so anyone can follow the action, these numbers are staggering. But it wasn't just the cold hard stats that proved Senna's greatness. The man had a way about him; as he discusses certain races and all the drama he encountered in his career, it becomes clear he had the sensitive mind and intellect of an artist (there's a great moment where Senna proclaims he actually saw God during a particularly strong race).
Eschewing talking heads completely and instead opting to layer the audio from interviews over existing archival footage, most of the "Senna" imagery is pulled from races, but we do get glimpses of the man at home with his family that are a necessary respite from all the aggro-driving scenes. This effect gives the film an immediacy not often granted to documentaries, as there's just not always cameras around when significant things happen. That was clearly not the case here, as Senna's racing, public persona and personal life were all well-documented. Director Asif Kapadia has a deft touch for using grainy video that perfectly underscores the audio, and the racing footage, especially the POV shots from cameras locked onto the cars, is thrilling, leaving one to wonder how any human being is capable of driving like that.
While the film is called "Senna," it does provide a fairly complete picture of other important people in his life -- his family, the Formula One doctor he befriended -- as well as his bitter rivalry with talented French F1 driver and teammate Alain Prost. And it's in these sections of the film that we see just how competitive and -- pardon the pun -- driven these two men were. The most exciting thing in sports is watching great athletes square off, being witness to the push-pull drama and amazing feats that come from competition at its highest level. In "Senna," an abundance of drama comes from this rivalry. Proust is the Jordan of F1 until Senna arrives and challenges him at every turn for the title of best driver in the world. The world championship seems to toss back and forth between the drivers until Senna finally takes the edge after a few years of having to deal with many unlucky breaks and questionable favoritism by the French-run F1 organization Both drivers did things that could be seen as cheating, or at least unsportsmanlike, and these moments and their consequences are the stuff of great drama; the losses, the wins, the frustrations, the compromises.
However we did have some qualms about the film. Once the credits roll, there's this interesting bit of information given: "Made with the cooperation of Instituto Ayrton Senna. Since it was established in 1995, the Instituto Ayrton Senna has educated over 12 million underprivileged Brazilian children." We appreciate that the filmmakers were up-front about this organization's involvement, and its beginnings are even featured in the film briefly, but it's hard not to believe that this institute has a vested interest in lionizing Senna, as it can only help to have the world see him as a mythical, tragic figure. While the film is a mostly balanced affair (Senna doesn't come off as perfect by any means), you can't help but be on the side of our main character in the end. There's even a nasty villain in Formula 1 President Jean-Maire Balestre, who's both a hilariously over-the-top leader ("What I decide is the correct decision!" he shouts in one scene) and a man seemingly out to get the "hero" of this story. It's impossible not to link Balestre's French heritage to his favoring of Prost (one championship is decided on a rather weak technicality that leaves Senna and the audience fuming). While this political bullshit is upsetting, the footage at times can seem a bit too manipulative. We're in Senna's corner from the get-go, but the more director Kapadia focuses on Senna's reactions to his trials and tribulations, the more we find the driver to be a bit... well, whiny. While sometimes his gripes are undoubtedly justified, at others we found ourselves remembering a line Al Pacino says to Keanu Reeves in "The Devil's Advocate": "Maybe it was your time to lose."
Any other issues with the film are minor, as "Senna" is an exciting, well-paced documentary that anyone can enjoy. Kapadia's greatest accomplishment is the way he ties together all the pieces, players and dramatic turns in the climax (the cross cutting in this sequence is wonderfully handled). For those bored with summer movies, this is a true-life tale that will put most superhero stories to shame. We have been deliberately rather coy with certain details in this review, as we recommend you go in with as little information as possible about the driver, though even if you already know Senna's history and fate, the film should still work like gangbusters. At our screening, you could hear a pin drop in the final ten minutes of the film, and things got a bit dusty. And while you won't lose out too much, story-wise, if you wait to watch this one on the small screen at home, we'd like to recommend you drive fast to the theater for it, if for nothing else than to see the thrilling driving footage on a big screen. [B+]