Senna (2010, Asif Kapadia)
Anyone familiar with the Formula 1 racing championship and its history is aware of the name Ayrton Senna. Ayrton is today considered a legend, fondly remembered by fans of sport and former drivers alike. During his all too briefly illustrious career, Senna was quite the controversial figure, with his detractors equally vocal as his supporters, especially his closest rivals during the races themselves. Documentary filmmaker Asif Kapadia offers a relatively insightful glimpse into this unique figure, delivering a film constructed exclusively out of archival footage and family home videos, with the occasional voice over courtesy of past interviews.
Ayrton Senna was born in 1960 in Brazil. His love for racing started at an early age, and his chances at a professional career took flight in the late 1970s as he piloted the equivalent of go-cart vehicles in a much smaller league than what F1 had to offer. He was a phenomenal driver, if a little too reckless at times. His success meant graduation to Formula 1 by 1984 during which season he drove for Toleman. After a brief spell with Lotus from 1985 to 1987, the crux of his story, of his legend rather, began in earnest upon joining McLaren in 1988, thus teaming up with one of the greats at the time, Frenchman Alain Prost. Whereas Senna was driven by speed, courage and what he deemed some sort of divine guidance, Prost was the consummate professional and understood the ins and outs of the sport, both in regards to what had to be done on the track purely for victories and anything related to points standings and various other more politically related details. Was the blazing up and comer to soften his touch under the guidance of Prost? Not at all, which of course meant a rift between the two was eventual. While in Prost's eyes Senna was far too cocky and reckless, in the eyes of many others Senna only grew greater as not only the individual wins piled up, but so did the season championships...
It felt nearly impossible to head into Asif Kapadia's Senna without prior knowledge of how the film was put together, that being by pulling together various archival footage, be it from sports casts or from personal family footage, and gluing them in such a fashion, without the assistance of recently recorded talking head interviews to use as a spine, that a cohesive story can be told. Reading and listening to the comments shared by several who chose to point that out, it seemed as though that in of itself was worthy of the highest of praise. One wonders if such people follow any kind of professional sporting events throughout one or multiple seasons. For starters, any big event or series of events will have literally countless cameras recording video or taking snapshots of said event. The staggering amount of visual documentation for merely one race would be enough to fill en entire library. The absence talking heads is admittedly an interesting directorial decision, but not one that will drop the jaws of anybody who understands how detailed the recording a Formula 1 race is. There are interviews before races, after races, as well as during the two weeks that separate the races, not only with the drivers at the center of attention, but also the team owners, leaders and even technicians if need be. In essence, there was certainly no lack of material to build a reasonably cohesive story using only archival footage. Having the Senna family give permission to allow Kapadia to utilize personal home video footage is arguably the most interesting coup the director accomplished, but it is not as though a incredible amount is shown throughout the picture anyhow. Additionally, while there are no talking head interviews, audio archival interviews with Ayrton's sister and several people associated with the profession accompany the movie and set certain scenes into context.
What matters in the case of Senna is what Kapadia does with the aforementioned footage. In that regard, Senna is a compelling drama about a special individual who particular quirks were made known to the entire world given the vast, faithful F1 fan base. The portrait of Senna shown to the viewer is that of a man who was deeply compelled to race despite the odds, despite the risks, and despite the criticism frequently aimed at him. At the time that his stardom rose with McLaren (and teammate/enemy Alain Prost), the head of the federation was also a Frenchmen, thus suspiciously leading to certain race day decisions that would favour Alain over Ayrton. The Brazilian's racing style was also conducive to various stressful moments given his propensity to drive with madman speed. Granted, his control over the vehicle was often quite good, there were the inevitable contacts with other cars, which, has chance it would have it, left his opponents' cars rather than his own in bad shape. The passion for the sport never swayed, nor did his calm yet powerful conviction in his talents as a driver, some of which he attributed to the intervention of God Himself. One of the film's most awe inspiring moments is when he finally won the Brazilian Grand Prix. Arriving at the finish line well ahead of everybody else, his exaltation at capturing victory in his homeland where people saw him practically as a demi-god was so powerful that he experienced muscular tensions and could not exit his car without the help of teammates! When in interviews he comes off as somewhat shy, unsure of how to behave in front of the camera. Clearly, his place in life was behind the driver's seat. Like so many of the greats, he was a complicated man, yet overall a very likable one.
Perhaps Kapadia's film is not as complete as one would like it be. It alludes to Ayrton's love of his native Brazil, which is of course an important story element to establish when fleshing out the subject, yet really only offers a cursory examination of his relation to its people. Senna briefly touches on the fact that Brazil, especially in those days, was a surprisingly poor nation despite its worldwide popularity. His success on the international stage meant resulted in two things. First, that most Brazilians, but in particular the lower class, looked up to Ayrton with tremendous pride. Second, Ayrton did invest some time and energy in charity work for the youth struggling to get by in the lower socio-economic classes. A little bit more of those two aspects would have completed the image of Ayrton for the purpose of the film. Knowing that a star is involved in charity is one thing, but when presented the opportunity to explore it in film in the case of such a curious man as Artyon Senna, it feels as though director Kapadia limits himself. It is not that the viewer's understanding of the subject by the end of the film is insufficient, only that some pertinent and directly related topics are not explored as fully as otherwise could have been the case and, in contrast, would have provided a more detailed, complete understanding.
Fans of Formula 1 would do well to seek this one out. The documentary provides a goldmine of both wonderful footage from races past and and some interesting interviews with Senna himself. The centerpiece of the film, the Senna-Prost rivalry, is definitely the most gripping sequence, one that has a bittersweet payoff in the final scenes following Ayrton's fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, which terrifyingly enough had also taken the life of another driver during Saturday's pole positioning runs. The perfect documentary? Not by a stretch, but a very solid one.