For the most part, documentaries are only as good as the subject they cover. Aryton Senna, a Brazilian Formula One racecar driver is the subject of Asif Kapadia’s new film “Senna” and he’s one of the most fascinating subjects I’ve seen in a documentary in recent months, and one that I’m sure most of the general audience doesn’t know about.
Senna’s story isn’t rags to riches. He didn’t have a rough childhood to overcome. He doesn’t become internationally famous, only to lose it all to drugs or imprisonment. His story is simply that he loved to race and even though he got caught up in the politics of the sport, he never let it discourage him. At one point in the film someone asks him amidst a conflict “Why don’t you just quit now?” and Senna replies, “Because I can’t.”
Senna is a man of many depths who goes through major changes, and Kapdia’s documentary does a fantastic job of chronicling these events, from his claim to fame at the 1984 Monte Carlo Grand Prix, to his tours with different Formula One race teams (like the British team McLaren), to his untimely death at age 34 in 1994.
In the beginning of the film during the opening credits, we see stock footage of Senna in his early years of racing. He’s young, good looking and always has a big smile on his face. He’s enjoying his life every day. But as the movie goes on and Senna becomes more famous and more entangled in the politics, we see a different side of him and that smile fades.
We see a side of him that’s naïve and doesn’t know as much about the sport as he thinks he does. A man who strives for absolute perfection, who even after becoming a three-time world champion is still not satisfied. And we see a man who has such a strong belief in God that he thinks he’s invincible…and who ultimately is not.
Much like the 1970 documentary “Gimmie Shelter” about a disastrous Rolling Stones concert, “Senna” is nothing but archival footage, consisting of TV interviews, family home movies, and coverage of the races, mixed with audio interviews (instead of the typical face interviews) with family, sportscasters and friends. Now, these kinds of archival documentaries can be tedious, as was the case in “Gimmie Shelter” But Kapadia’s film is well edited and organized, and moves at a breezy pace with plenty of interesting and rare footage.
However, while the audio interviewing technique is unique it still would have been helpful to have the typical headshots, so you could see the interviewee’s facial language as they make their comment. Also, sometimes when a non-English speaker needed subtitles, you were too busy reading to watch the footage.
The best part of the entire movie is the rivalry that ensued between Senna and fellow McLaren team member Alain Prost. Prost is a veteran racer who feels threatened by Senna and the fact that he’s a rookie coming in on his team. Instead of the interviewees retelling the feud, we get to see it unfold and evolve through the actual footage. As the two talk about each other in TV interviews you can see the tension in their faces and hear it in their words, even as they say positive things.
The film does expect the audience to know somewhat about Formula One racing. People who don’t know about the sport may be a little confused about the rules and how a race is won, which is important considering that most of the conflicts involve Senna getting screwed over or disqualified because of technicalities. But even with this drawback it still shouldn’t stop you from enjoying this movie. You’ll be glad you came to know something about this truly Complex and all around good man.