The ESPN series “30 For 30” has produced some remarkable films, so I know that ESPN is a force to be reckoned with in terms of documentary production. Seeing their logo on the front of this one, along with Universal and Working Title, I figured on something slick, an advertisement for Formula One racing from the perspective of one of the sport’s legends. Instead, it is an acutely felt and emotional movie, an exceptional personal portrait of one of the guys who defined the sport during one of its key turning points. It is also a sad reminder of just what the stakes are for these guys each and every time they get behind the wheel.
There are different schools of documentary filmmaking, and the two docs I’m reviewing today are both examples of the type that is built from existing footage. In this case, director Asif Kapadia is working as a sort of filter, the one who went through mountains of footage from over the years, gradually picking and choosing the bits and pieces that offer up the narrative he’s trying to tell. You’ve got to have an editor’s instincts to be good at this, and Kapadia has a knack for cutting dramatic scenes out of this footage, finding the small human details that really tell the story, avoiding narration and simply letting people tell their own story. Working with writer Manish Pandey, he has managed to paint a riveting portrait of one driven man and the course of his career without simply making it a greatest hits collection.
Ayrton Senna came from Brazil, where he was the child of well-off parents, allowing him to indulge his interests in kart racing while still a teen. He jumped into Formula One as soon as he could, and he quickly made a mark on the sport, announcing himself as a fierce competitor. It’s astonishing to see just how much footage there must have been based on how much room there was for him to build his story. It looks like Formula One must have had cameras rolling everywhere at all times. There is real subtlety in the way Kapadia etches the relationships in the movie, like the rivalry between Senna and Alain Prost. There are reaction shots in sequences that blow my mind. There are narrative filmmakers who don’t shoot films this well when they have all the options in the world, and somehow, Kapadia managed to find all of this and he’s able to punctuate his story perfectly as a result.
I have no special interest in or connection to Formula One, but “Senna” does a great job of laying out both the drama of the sport and the beauty of what Senna accomplished as a driver. It also accurately portrays the danger of it, and there is some awful car crash footage. As the film traces Senna’s rise in the sport and his various victories, it also details the way fear constantly gnawed at him, particularly as he got older and started to really build a life away from racing. Like many people who are driven to excellence in a particular field, Senna had an exclusionary focus for much of his life, and it was only after he had several world championships under his belt that he finally started to relax and enjoy his lifestyle. He also developed a strong social conscience, aware of how Brazil was seen on the world stage, and he maintained a strong, outspoken national pride his whole life. It only underlines the inherent sadness of Senna’s story to see just how decent a person he was, and who he was becoming.
Ultimately, it’s a combination of technique and story that makes “Senna” so strong, and it makes a case for Kapadia in a way that his earlier narrative efforts like “The Warrior” and “The Return” never did. It’s a thrilling theatrical experience, and it lingers in a way great fiction does.
“Senna” opens in limited release this Friday.