Leaving the cinema after the screening of Senna, the cinephilic documentary of the Formula One driver tragically killed in the prime of his career, I knew I had seen something special. It just took a bit of time to justify, in an articulate manner, just why I had enjoyed it so much. I was impressed that a modern-day filmmaker (Asif Kapadia) could so astutely compile a documentary in the same style as that of the Maysles brothers in Gimme Shelter. But unlike the latter “rock-doc” (patent pending), chronicling the events of The Rolling Stones’ infamously ill-fated Altamont concert, Senna focuses not on one key event, but a tumultuous life driven by a combination of pride, justice and God-given humility.
Ayrton Senna took the F1 world by storm in the mid-80s, signing on as a member of the McLaren team alongside fellow hot shot Alain Prost. What started out as friendly competition turned into rivalry, and finally a mutual hatred. While Prost was well aware of the politics surrounding the sport, taking care to not step on any toes, Senna was in the business only to win. As his career developed, Senna would go on switch teams, driving for Frank Williams and his technologically advanced machines. Unfortunately, Senna’s concerns about the safety of his new car would prove correct, resulting in his death on a racetrack in Imola at age 34.
Credit must be given to Kapadia for his extensive use of archive footage, characterizing Senna as an incredibly complex, polarizing figure. The man is far too humble considering all his achievements. He feels the presence of God during every race, but doesn’t have any delusions about the very real possibility of death. It is this personal humility that prevents Senna from falling into the trap of becoming self-serving and indulgent, focusing only on the high points of Senna’s life. However, he is by no means a “go-with-the-flow” bohemian. Ayrton is also shown as a fiercely competitive driver who wants nothing to do with insider relations, and who considers the refusal of something that is rightfully his to be the greatest dishonor a man can perform.
The selective, highly detailed use of archive footage (the 105 minute final product was whittled down from about 1500 hours of tape) has been edited brilliantly to the point that this, a piece of non-fiction, actually plays out with the drama and intensity of a scripted movie. Because this is Ayrton’s story, and no one else’s, some of the truth may have been lost in an attempt to give the film more energy, but we cannot be certain. Was Prost really so deceitful and egomaniacal that he would intentionally knock himself and his teammate out of the race to secure the World Championship? Was the reluctance of the Williams team to take Senna’s concerns seriously the catalyst for his death? Only one man knows the truth, and he is in no position to divulge the answers.
But speaking of energy, certain scenes have been included purely for audience engagement, not that this is a bad thing. Use of “helmet-vision” allows us to see exactly what the driver himself faces with every exhilarating corner he turns. Vision of Senna’s Grand Prix win in his home country of Brazil and later, the hearse driving him around the streets of Sao Paulo adorned by literally millions of fans carries with it heavy emotional weight. And just like Gimme Shelter, we are exposed to the shocking but incredible on-screen death of a real person.
The film is given a circular theme of sorts, tying the first and last scene together in a poignant retrospective of not just one man’s life, but the preciousness of life itself. It avoids every kind of genre cliché, eliminating the use of a narrator, talking heads, lame re-enactments and a slow-paced look at the subject’s childhood. But the film’s greatest achievement? It had me, a man who has never been an F1 fan by any length, hooked from the opening minute. Senna may well be the best film not to be nominated for Best Picture this season.