The extent to which I know anything about Formula One racing is that Michael Schumacher posed as The Stig on an episode of “Top Gear” and that he also kind of looks like my dad.
That said, I am not the intended audience for the documentary “Senna,” based on the life of the three-time F1 Champ Ayrton Senna. And yet it remains a touching portrait of a true athlete.
Ayrton Senna was considered the best Formula One driver of all time until he was killed in a crash in a 1994 race. He won the World Championship three times and was at the time the top ranked driver in the world. He has since lost several of his records, but after his fatal crash the safety requirements were overhauled to the point that no driver has been killed since.
Watching the film by Asif Kapadia, I perhaps only learned so much about the rules of racing, the technique or the fierce competition behind it, but I came away with an appreciation for the man.
The film paints Senna as a national icon of his home country Brazil. It shows him as a man who just loved the thrill of a race and was beaten down time and time again by the politics of the sport. Senna tried to change the nature of the race by switching the pole position to the opposite side of the track and by removing tires to allow a safe runoff zone in case of an accident.
And for all these heroic depictions, Kapadia likely could’ve made Senna to look any way he wanted. “Senna” is a miracle of editing. Kapadia and his editors Chris King and Gregers Sall have made a film constructed completely of archival footage and have managed to weave not only a cohesive story but an emotionally charged one.
We see treasured glimpses of the beginnings of Senna’s career on a go-kart track to literally split seconds before the end of his life. The choppy archival footage gives a nostalgic flair to the entire film that makes it immensely more visually interesting than any F1 race. And interior driver cam footage makes the races all the more compelling because they are completely from one man’s perspective.
We become attached to whether he will win or lose, even if we know the fate that’s coming. We begin to hate the bitter political stabs of his teammate Alain Prost. And we jump with the same level of startled horror when a fellow racer crashes, not cheer in excitement the way some American audiences might with Nascar.
“Senna” leaves us with no hidden message or no deeper meaning behind the sport. It simply composes a delicate and touching life story.
3 ½ stars