director Asif Kapadia
To be honest, auto racing, in any form, isn’t really my bag. I did, years ago, talk to a guy who was an avid Formula 1 fan and tried to extol to me the virtues of the sport. I am not sure that I recognized the noises that his voice was making.
The British documentary Senna is about one of Formula 1 racing’s greatest champions, Brazilian Ayrton Senna, who conquered that sport back in the 1980’s and for a brief period in time battled back and forth with his top nemesis and sometimes teammate, Frenchman Alain Prost. And the documentary garnered positive reviews and recommendations from documentary enthusiasts.
Senna came from an upper-middle class family in Brazil, racing go karts with great passion and skill until managing to get a foothold in Formula 1, not the most accessible of professional sports. His stunning skill led him to the top of the heap, on the McLaren racing team alongside Prost, the resident champion, from whom the true drama of the story sparks directly.
The most compelling part of the narrative is the back-and-forth competition, gamesmanship, cheap tactics, politics and action that arose during the late 1980’s to early 1990’s in the heart of the Prost-Senna battles. I know nothing really of the history of the sport, but it’s easy to see how the races, accidents, and rules chicanery between the two top guys, once teammates, eternal competitors made for riveting watching and following.
The film is good, though, I have to say as an outsider, I was left wondering a lot of things that the film didn’t provide. What does the average person know of Formula 1 racing? Does the average European know more than the average American on the topic?
Senna died in an accident in 1994, shown on film here, along with some other dramatic and fatal accidents that occurred on the same track only days before, foreshadowing Senna’s death too. It’s part of what makes the story even more compelling, of course, the tragic ending of a great sportsman at the age of 34.
The build up to the tragedy begins the year before when Prost is racing for a Williams’ sponsored team, racing an automobile heightened with computer chips, allowing for finesse that at the time had been unheard of. Prost wins the championship and retires, and Senna goes to race for the team in the seat that Prost has just emptied. Only the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) rules that the computer chips are not legal in the rule book and Senna finds himself driving vehicles that are not nearly so sound or tested and his concern is extremely evident. Ultimately, it is assessed that Senna’s death resulted from technical failure of the machine he drove and a freak structural flaw gave him his fatal injury.
The film paints a pretty honorific portrait of Senna, the driven (haha), passionate competitor who had great pride in his homeland and was also very dedicated to aiding Brazil’s impoverished masses. He’s amazingly eloquent and intelligent, showing a great sensitivity and compassion, and seeming truly humble. Really if anything, it’s Senna speaking to various interviewers or in meetings about the races and rules that depict a man who seems absolutely genuine and straightforward.
I enjoyed the film, and I certainly learned a thing or two from it. As I mentioned, the drama is there in the height of the competitions and in the tragic death of the film’s hero. And the film is well-constructed. What with all this drama playing out largely on camera for television audiences around the world, the raw material of the film is both abundant and vivid, not reconstructed or reliant on talking head interviews. Director Asif Kapadia has a lot to work with and it holds up brilliantly.
But I wasn’t blown away by the movie either. I found myself full of questions about the system of racing, the details of Senna’s death and its aftermath. If I had to guess, maybe the audiences are assumed to have greater knowledge of Formula 1 and its impact and significance and history. Frankly, it’s an elite and elitist system, something that Senna comments on directly, “the politics” of which are noted if not fully and really explored.