Race car drivers, we know, go very, very fast, but rarely with the thoughtfulness and integrity shown by Brazilian Formula 1 superstar Ayrton Senna. In the ultra competitive speed-freak world of car racing, it seems slightly out of the norm for a racer to regularly consult with God mid-race. Then again, very little about the driver, who died from a racing injury in 1994, suggests he was run-of-the-mill. The documentary Senna makes a convincing case for the spirit the three-time Formula 1 world champion brought to the sport.
As much a mini-history of Formula 1 racing as a bio-doc about a fascinating superstar on that circuit, Senna employs archival footage to follow the dashing Brazilian racer starting with his early days karting, long before the big money machines of the big leagues. Ironically, after a long career of high stakes racing, it was those first competitions that Senna often pined for. As Senna moved up in the racing circuit ranks, his ability to drive under adverse conditions (he thrived on a rain-slicked track) and come out from behind made him a phenomenon even as his tendency to buck the customs of the politicized racing world made him a legend.
Fueling Senna’s legendary status for his native Brazilians and racing fans alike, Senna documents the bitter, intense rivalry between the racer and one-time teammate, Frenchman Alain Prost. When the French head of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile Jean-Marie Balestre took countryman Prost’s side over Senna’s during a definitive Japanese grand prix race, the favoritism and the nationalism of the sport came into sharp relief. Prost and Senna’s raging feud on and off the track gave the racing world a thrilling soap opera flair for a time.
But the film’s real guts are the on-track pyrotechnics. With cameras mounted on Senna’s car, the film captures the bone-shaking, video game-like sensation of navigating race tracks at top speed. As you might imagine, these first-person images of key races are some of the film’s most pulse-quickening, awe-inspiring moments. In addition to that thrill factor, Senna has a fairly consistent focus on the technicalities of racing, including the pivotal shift of the Formula 1 industry from human-operated machines to increasingly dangerous, temperamental computer-controlled beasts, a supposed innovation that has led to several horrible fatalities.
Off the race track, Senna appeared to enjoy the fruits of his success, boldly whispering a proposition into a beautiful Brazilian TV host’s ear while he was a guest on her show, as well as enjoying the company of numerous blonde lovelies. The child of Brazil’s upper-middle-class, Senna at once delighted in his privileges — director Asif Kapadia shows endless footage of the racer at play, whether water skiing, swimming, or sunbathing — but also tried to rectify some of the enormous economic inequities between rich and poor. Only glancingly alluded to in the film, Senna apparently did much to benefit Brazil’s children.
But Kapadia seems more engaged by the on-track action and gives that social cause, and a sense of the man inside the legend, only glancing treatment. Kapadia is less able to plumb the depths of its character in a satisfying way, leaving the documentary feeling a little incomplete.