Charismatic yet humble, Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian national hero and an international sports superstar -- so why haven't you heard of him, much less the documentary about his life? Well, Senna's sport of choice was Formula One, which might help explain the worldwide adulation and relative North American ambivalence. But Asif Kapadia's 'Senna' is starting to change all that, as the thrilling and tragic look at one of auto racing's all-time greats landed Audience Awards at Sundance and the Los Angeles Film Festival, forcing even racing neophytes to take notice.
For those unfamiliar with Ayrton's tale, we'll bring you up to speed on just what 'Senna' is about, and why you don't need to be a Formula One fan to get drawn into this compelling retrospective on the racing superstar.
What Is 'Senna' About?
A finely-tuned piece of editing, 'Senna' is streamlined and efficient as it rehashes Ayrton's legendary career, following the racing whiz kid from his rapid ascent up the F1 leaderboard to his tense rivalry with one-time teammate Alain Prost and finally, his untimely end in a 1994 accident. Over the course of that ten-year period, the film offers an engrossing portrait of an extremely driven yet modest and spiritual man, a fitting tribute to a global icon whose life was cut tragically short.
Born into an affluent family in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Ayrton Senna graduated from go-karts to Formula One in 1984, bursting onto the scene almost immediately at the Monaco Grand Prix by going from 13th place to a hair behind 1st place driver Alain Prost. From there, Senna was a fixture on the podium, and by 1988, had joined Prost at McLaren, as the young contender battled his teammate to win his first of three World Championships. Over the next several years, their rivalry would dominate the sport, growing even more heated as the two traded paint, trophies and accusations of foul play.
As Senna's star grew both in Brazil and around the world, the driver found himself increasingly frustrated by the politics that dominated Formula One. Yet that didn't prevent him from continuing his assault on the sport's record books, and after winning his third championship at 31, Senna officially cemented himself as an all-time great, with even more promise lying ahead. That he was just reaching his peak makes the film's unavoidable ending all the more tragic, and gives 'Senna' a ticking-clock element as it counts up the years to the unfortunate accident that claimed the race car driver's life on the track in San Marino in 1994.
But What's In It For Non-Fans?
Yes, 'Senna' undoubtedly has more name recognition and instant appeal for F1 fans and those familiar with the driver's decade-long career. But Ayrton's obvious virtuosity, humility and lasting impact broadens his tale beyond a mere racing documentary. And with voice-over interviews from Senna's family, friends and admirers (rather than the typical talking heads) and a wealth of archival footage that allowed Kapadia to cut between multiple angles, 'Senna' presents a real-life story with the look of a fiction film.
Thanks to an agreement with Formula One, the often never-before-seen footage takes us into the garage with Ayrton, into pre-race drivers' meetings, and even into his car via an on-board camera. It's a thrilling angle that instantly communicates the intensity and difficulty of a Formula One race for newcomers, but it's also used as a sobering reminder of their potential danger, as Kapadia includes over-the-shoulder footage leading up to the accident that claimed Senna's life.
But more than just thrills and danger, 'Senna' is a story with ready-made drama. Kapadia turns Prost and then-F1 president Jean-Marie Balestre (with whom Senna had a contentious relationship) into shifty villains worthy of any feel-good sports movie. And when a questionable collision and resulting technicality robs Ayrton of his second straight world championship, you don't need to know the fine print on Regulation 51 of the FIA rule book to feel outraged on Senna's behalf.
The director wisely keeps the focus on his star though, and he makes for a fascinating subject. And because 'Senna' is ultimately a compelling human story first and racing movie second, you don't have to start out a fan, though you may become one by the time the documentary's over.
'Senna' opens in select cities across the United States on August 12, and in select cities in Canada on August 19.