Published Aug 18, 2011You'd have to try really hard to make a documentary about Formula One motor racing unexciting. The tightly controlled, life or death, edge of the knife sport of extreme speed is less of a race and more of a struggle to survive, where one split-second false move can cause absolute chaos. Only those with lightning reflexes, nerves of steel and very little fear of death need apply.
Ayrton Senna had those attributes and he was insanely passionate about racing. Born in Brazil to aristocratic parents, the young Senna devoted his life to racing and rapidly rose to its highest echelon, dominating Formula One through the '80s until his death in 1994.
Asif Kapadia's documentary acts as both a biography and tribute, investigating Senna's life in racing, from a teenager riding go-karts in Brazil to international fame and dominance of the Formula One circuit. Kapadia manages to form a relatively linear narrative, focusing largely on Senna's days racing with McLaren in concert with another prodigy, Alain Prost. The Prost/Senna rivalry is the engine that drives this film, perfectly illustrating how elite level competition can turn team-mates into bitter enemies.
The work provides some clever insights into the world of Formula One, utilizing footage of drivers' meetings to illustrate private politics, while Kapadia and his crew do an excellent job of retaining a consistent aesthetic despite incorporating multiple sources, and the racing footage is particularly exciting. Yet something is missing.
While the film takes caution to not martyr Senna or treat his death as anything other than a horrible accent, its relative objectivity comes off as unnecessarily distant. Frankly, Senna could use some of the great bane of the quality documentary: the talking head interview. To get a feeling of the late driver now, we could only know him best through those who worked with him, raced with him, knew him and loved him.
While Senna, the movie, works as a thrill-ride, in the end, the great Ayrton Senna, the man, remains as elusive as ever. (Mongrel Media)