“Senna,” the documentary about Ayrton Senna, the great Brazilian Formula One driver, begins with an interview with Senna as a teenager, after he arrives in Europe for the first time to compete in the karting championships. The footage is grainy, sepia-hued and raw.
“It was pure driving, real racing,” he says in a voiceover from a later interview. “And that makes me happy.”
And that’s how Asif Kapadia, the director of “Senna,” establishes the overarching theme of the film: Senna as an outsider. Even in his rise through Formula One, winning three drivers’ titles, Senna remained an outsider: a Brazilian in Europe, a pure driver in a world of calculating opportunists, namely Alain Prost, the four-time champion and Senna’s teammate at McLaren, and Jean-Marie Balestre, the president of the sport.
Senna is one of the great dramatic figures in all of sports. He was daring and handsome and seemingly invincible, until he died in a crash at the age of 34, still very much in his prime. Kapadia, whose debut feature film “The Warriors” won a BAFTA award in 2001, relies solely on archival footage to tell Senna’s story. It couldn’t have been easy for Kapadia and the film’s writer, Manish Pandey, but the result is a film that’s as transporting as it is gripping.
Senna - Movie Trailer
The film gets into the good stuff right away, with the sound of a turbocharged engine in an onboard shot of Senna’s car ripping through the streets of Monaco. Racing for the Toleman team, one of the worst in Formula One, in 1984, Senna, over 31 laps – not even halfway through the race – muscled his car from 13th to second position, on a rain-soaked circuit.
He was on the heels of the race leader, Prost, who was in a much faster car and who by that point was frantically waving his arms at race officials in an attempt to red-flag the race for the driving rain. They did, and Prost won, but Senna, in finishing close behind, established both his talent and a rivalry with Prost, whom he would join at McLaren in 1988.
That rivalry makes up the meat of the narrative, as Kapadia smartly shifts the film’s focus from that point on from Senna’s indisputable talent to his less-heralded traits: his intellect, work ethic and tenacity, all of which were needed to overcome the political obstacles he faced in Prost and Balestre.
Senna, an impassioned driver, couldn’t have been more different from Prost, whose nickname was “The Professor” for his reliance on strategy. They raced together for McLaren for only two seasons, though it felt like more because they remained in each other’s hair pretty much till the very end. A poignant scene from the final grand prix of 1993 in Australia shows Senna and Prost on the podium, both for the last time.
But in some eyes, Prost’s cunning was more hurtful off the track, working his friendship with Balestre, a fellow Frenchman, to undermine Senna (doubtlessly there are those who feel the opposite, but this movie is called “Senna,” not “Prost”).
Perhaps no example provides sharper relief than that after the two drivers collide while fighting for the lead at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix. Senna won the race but was disqualified after a makeshift pre-podium hearing, ending Senna’s hopes for the championship that year.
The meeting between Senna, Prost, Balestre and Ron Dennis, the team principal for McLaren, was captured in remarkable footage, taken from a distance. No words are heard, but the body language and facial expressions seen through the windows offer enough clues to the dialogue.
Equally incriminating is a shot of Prost moments after the collision. He is seen darting to the race offices to file a complaint against his teammate, providing a visual that further casts him as the henchman to Balestre’s evil mastermind.
Kapadia comes from a dramatic background, which means he’s perfectly suited to tell Senna’s story. The power of “Senna” lies in that it is not a film about racing, but a film about a person, his motivations and struggles, and ultimately, his tragic and untimely death.
The final sequence of the film is devoted to the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. Considered by most Formula One fans as a cursed weekend, it saw high speed crashes by Rubens Barrichello in practice and by Roland Ratzenberger in qualifying; Ratzenberger’s was fatal.
“Senna” brings us there as if we were living through it for the first time, ticking through the moments in a slow suspenseful creep, adding weight to each shot. We know the ending, and that makes it all the more effective. As Alfred Hitchcock once said, suspense lies in knowing that the bomb is under the table and the viewer wants to scream at the characters, “Get out of there! There’s a bomb under the table!”
Senna’s tragic death looms over every scene of the film and colors the dialogue. After Ratzenberger’s death, Senna is visibly shaken. Dr. Sid Watkins, head of the Formula One on-track medical team and Senna’s friend, recounts a conversation with Senna in which he tries to convince Senna to quit. “Let’s go fishing,” he says. Dr. Watkins is unsuccessful, but during that moment all I was thinking was what if he said yes, what if, what if, what if…
“Senna” is currently playing a preview week in New York and Los Angeles, but if you don’t have tickets already, you may be out of luck for now.
Follow Richard S. Chang on Twitter: @r_s_c