A good documentary should engage the audience regardless of whether they have a knowledge or passion for its subject matter. Senna is a classic example of this, as your interest in Formula One racing or Senna himself is not a prerequisite to find this excellently crafted film absorbing, compelling and moving. With the blessing of the Senna family, director Asif Kapadia gives us an entertaining insight into the man, the drama and politics of the sport exclusively through on and off track archival footage (some extremely rare) supported by various voice over with out a talking head in sight. The structure of the film is not an overly conventional and traditional one, but in hindsight, was the best possible presentation to allow us to be transfixed at the saga that was Ayrton Senna’s F1 career up until his death in 1994.
Beginning in Senna’s youth and following his passion for go-karts, it is made clear he was not a product of Brazil’s overwhelming poverty and at an early age his well to do parents easily supported and encouraged his passion; his unyielding belief in religion and a protective God was also instilled early on, and would remain a driving force of his outlook throughout his life. Coupled with a remarkable competitive spirit, Senna’s ascension into F1 greatness was merely a formality, though his first years were a shaky transition. Having to learn to accept and deal with the politics of the sport and once they become team mates, the determination of current No.1 driver in the world, Alain Prost, who perhaps was subject to nepotism from then-F1 boss and fellow countryman; Jean-Marie Balestre. The bitter rivalry that developed between them over many years is the main focus for the majority of the film, particularly during the fight for the championships which seemed to always be determined by the results in the final race of the season for several years in a row.
Using voice over mainly from Ayrton’s sister, a select few commentators and writers from the era are used as well as then-McLaren boss, Ron Dennis, for insight into specific events. Somewhat surprisingly, no actual drivers from Senna’s time are present besides what is seen in the footage which includes several moments of drama at driver meetings, in team’s garages and of course, on TV interviews. The latter particularly displays Ayrton's sense of humour and undeniable cheekiness when it comes to the fairer sex. Above all though, his belief in God and unmatched competitiveness is at the forefront of the examination that is Senna.
Though with the drama that unfolds during the course of the races shown being engaging enough, the film’s technical achievements become an excellent tool in the suspense and emotional power of the overall final product. Antonio Pinto’s bright, but almost “murder mystery” toned score resonates during races and moments of tension superbly, not once becoming an intrusion, but always rigged to impact a moment to the fullest. The editing of the many hours of video footage (including several Senna family home videos) is painstakingly done, with no inclusion feeling unnecessary. Regarding the on track action, the several times we’re taken on board Senna’s car during races, the sense of speed is overwhelming; giving any non-followers of the sport a taste of the exhilaration that induces it’s fans. Suitably, Kapadia strips back the voices when we get to the fateful weekend of San Marino in 1994. Leaving us to merely watch as discussions about safety and Senna’s tension about the race unfold like a fly on the wall, the build up is impressive with emotional resonance as the film reaches its conclusion.
Much like last year’s American: The Bill Hicks Story, Senna takes a unique approach to showcasing a life. Not content to show numerous well known names giving their view, the director has left it to those who knew him best, and Senna himself, to guide us through the career of this unique individual. His personal life is, on the surface, only shown minimally, but as the film goes on, it becomes clear that what we see in Senna is almost the perfect example of what the man was, nothing more, nothing less. If you have an interest in motor sport, this is possibly as good as it gets but for all others, it still remains a journey about passion, determination and tragedy worth taking.