Formula One racing is a mystery to many of us in the US. NASCAR dominates as they drive “stock” cars in an endless loop. Meanwhile Formula One races through twisting tracks in cars that seem like they’re one strong wind away from being blown off the track. After watching the 2011 documentary, Senna, I have an even greater appreciation for those who dare race Formula One.
Ayrton Senna was one of the all time great Formula One drivers. Senna’s story is not one of the poor Brazilian who overcame the rich sport of Formula One. He grew up in a wealthy family, fell in love with racing, had some early success as a youngster and then earned his way onto the Formula One circuit. His fearless driving made for many fans and enemies. As numerous people note throughout, Formula One, like any organization, has its share of politics. Senna didn’t seem to care much for the politics. He raced to win and that was that.
What makes this documentary different from most is that it is completely made up of archival footage. There are no retrospective talking heads praising a man of faith and his zeal for the race track. A cinematic soundtrack makes the true life story always engaging.
I admire director Asif Kapadia’s focus. Most of the movie is spent on or around the race track. That is clearly where the most interesting story takes place and characters reside. Whether it be the rivalry that quickly develops between team mates, Senna and, former world champ, Alain Prost, or the trouble Senna sometimes gets himself into by driving overly aggressive, that is where the heart of the story lies. Even when delving into the type of man Senna is, it stays close to the race. For example, Senna is always proud to represent Brazil. Rather than spend a lot of time delving into this topic, Kapadia stays focused and shows Senna raising the flag on the track, being greeted by mobs of people in his homeland as he arrives after winning yet another world championship. There is mention that other Brazilian athletes and celebrities will distant themselves from Brazil once they achieve fame, but not Senna. Rather than dive into that more, Kapadia maintains the narrative of Senna as one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time. Some may find this razor sharp focus results in a shallow study of Ayrton Senna. My gut tells me that we’re seeing the most interesting aspect of Senna’s life – racing. And all of it is shown with existing footage. It’s a refreshing approach. An impressive movie overall.