Ayrton Senna’s sets an apt tone for a story of an athlete whose spirit remained pure in the midst of an increasingly commercialized and impure sport.
The documentary, Senna opens with Ayrton Senna as a rookie driver at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1984. Shuttling his way from 13th to 2nd place, bested only by his eventual arch rival, French driver, Alain Prost on the account of a technicality, Senna makes it clear that he will become a force to be reckoned with at an alarming rate.
Senna’s story is told through a series of confessionals by his friends, family, and former colleagues. The film refreshingly, (and contrary to an earlier cut of the film) avoids resorting to a series of talking heads, instead maintaining a captivatingly cinematic feel with the use of exhilarating archival footage of Senna’s races complemented with narration. Plenty of the footage, especially the first person recordings taking place inside of Senna’s car have been previously unreleased. There isn’t a single race depicted in the film that doesn’t induce the nail-biting fear that these racers, Senna included may not cross the finish line unscathed. Feasting on the striking images of Formula 1 cars soaring across the race track in a hail of flurries, no amount of CGI NOS fuel injections will ever equate to the level of intensity felt in these scenes. The film does an expertly restrained job at molding Ayrton Senna into a martyr leading up to his final race at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. Following the untimely death of the Brazilian driver at the age of 34, previously unpracticed safety measures were implemented before all Formula 1 races. As a result, not a single fatality has occurred at a Formula 1 race since.
Widely considered a national hero in his birthplace of Brazil, director Asif Kapadia respectfully acknowledges the iconic display of talent and courage that Ayrton Senna embodied
throughout the duration of his far too abbreviated life and career. In addition to having keenly acute driving skills, Senna also acquired an uncanny ability to persevere in the unlikeliest of
situations. At one point, Senna manages to win a race with a stalling engine. On another occasion he wins a race on water logged tracks while steering a car stuck in 6th gear, earning the moniker ”genius in the rain”. Even as Senna’s career catches steam, Kapadia is conscious to resist bombast and maintains a quaint mood to the narrative of the documentary.
Ayrton Senna is as an eloquently well spoken man, concerned more with the well being of his home country, Brazil, than the spoils of fame. Even at his most philosophical, Senna never exudes a sense of self indulgence that would often result from the astonishing number of accolades he garnered throughout his short lived career. Marked by his words, “I’m as scared as anyone of getting hurt”, his humble yet truthful demeanor makes his final moments all the more tragic. The documentary is culminated in a scene of his funeral proceedings that’s as heart wrenching as any piece of fictional cinema that’s been depicted this year.
In hindsight, much of the film carries a sense of foreboding tragedy. Early on, Senna makes a New Year’s Eve themed appearance on a personal favorite 80’s relic of mine, Xuxa in 1989. She eerily gives him a New Year’s kiss for each year leading up to 1993, which happened to be the final New Year’s he would experience before his death. Other red flags such as fellow driver, Roland Ratzenberger being killed in San Marino during the race the day before Senna’s fatal accident stacks the deck of dread that permeates the third act of the documentary. Wisely, the film doesn’t revel in the potential horror of the situation and presents the unfolding of events as evenly as possible.
Senna succeeds at depicting Ayrton’s talent and a specific time in the media notoriety of Formula 1 racing however, it paints noticeably broad strokes concerning the politically questionable nature of Formula 1 Corporation. His personal relationships with his family and significant others are also devoted fleeting attention at best. What the documentary lacks in gravitas, it makes up for in the visceral portrayal of racing. Each high octane scene of racing is accompanied by a hauntingly kinetic score that never overwhelms or manipulates the narrative.
As satisfying as Senna is, don’t expect a sports documentary that’s nearly as dense or comprehensive as Hoop Dreams. However, on its own terms, Senna is by no means a puff piece and serves to be an exhilarating documentary about an athlete who’s far past receiving his due respect among mainstream audiences.