Historically, movies about auto racing have been, pardon, hit or miss. A few have gained traction: Le Mans (with Steve McQueen) and Winning (with Paul Newman) for good reasons, and some for other reasons: Days of Thunder (Tom Cruise) and Talladega Nights (Will Ferrell). SENNA, directed by Asif Kapadia and now in theaters after hitting the festival circuit, might at face value be even more of a challenge for American audiences—a documentary about a divisive figure in a sport watched by few state-side (even films about America’s rust and sunbelt favorite, NASCAR, are big gambles), despite its enormous international popularity. And yet it’s winning hearts and minds here.
Ayrton Senna, of Brazil, will always be considered one of the most gifted drivers in Formula One, the pinnacle of auto racing. Tragically, at 34 he was killed in a race crash in Imola, Italy in 1994, the same weekend another driver (Roland Ratzenberger) lost his life in a support race. It was one of those moments when you simply can’t believe what you’re seeing, wishing you could turn back time and do things over. The film includes copious amounts of racing footage, as you’d expect, but the most engaging clips are from his family life, as well as publicity events (showing his oft-elusive affectionate and charming sides) and fly-on-the-wall scenes from pre-race driver meetings. In one such meeting, the confrontation between Senna and the race director could’ve been a take from a scripted film, so excellent were the camera angles, dialogue, and delivery. Credit Kapadia for culling and intelligently assembling such incisive footage.
As an F1 fan, it’s been interesting to read other critics’ favorable opinions of Senna as a person after viewing the film. My recollection of him is as a brilliant, intuitive athlete, and one of the most competitive, take-no-prisoners drivers ever, but at times prickly and moody. His archrival, Frenchman Alain Prost (“The Professor”) perhaps pushed Senna to his greatest achievements, like Federer and Nadal. Prost’s public persona was slightly more lugubrious and politic than Senna, who freely spoke his very opinionated mind. Prost was like the self-satisfied, wise owl next to Senna’s hungry, wily fox. Kapadia underscores that Prost shared his homeland with the head of F1, Jean-Marie Ballestre, and that certain rulings may have tipped a championship towards Prost at Senna’s expense (Senna won three championships in his career). However, with this film, compounded by his horribly tragic end, it would seem the public opinion of Senna has been burnished to a golden glow.
Watch the SENNA Official Trailer