Senna may be the highest grossing documentary this year, but the only other person in the theater with me yesterday for a mid-afternoon screening of it was one old woman who “doesn’t like racing.” She was the perfect person to see it with.

I realized too late that Senna was playing in my local, single-screen theater so I asked Ray Wert if I could take the afternoon to go catch it on its closing night. Given my past experience with this theater and the content I didn’t expect a big crowd. Which was good, because I looked like a homeless person with my grungy Astros cap, hoodie, and unshaven face.


Up until about five minutes before the film started I thought I’d be alone. And then she walked in.

Even in the dim light of the theater it’s clear she was the kind of person who comes to see every film. There was something in her body language, the way she went right towards her favorite seat and clutched her small bag of popcorn.

Curious, I ask her if she knows anything about the film.

“No, I’d read it was good. Somewhere…” she says.

“Are you a racing fan?”

“Oh, no. I don’t like racing. Car racing,” she replies, making the qualification in a way that makes me wonder if she enjoys the ponies.

A longer conversation ensued, mostly on the topic of the modern cinema, what films were playing there, and what films had already played. I was right. She just comes to see everything. Could a disinterested 70-something grandma possibly grasp 140 minutes of re-edited Formula 1 footage?

The chat abruptly ended when the film started. No previews. Right in. The film opens with a young Senna, hopeful and handsome, getting ready for his careering in racing. She didn’t walk out, which I took as a good sign.
When director Asif Kapadia sets up the rivalry between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna he opens with both of them at their charming best. She laughs at the Frenchman’s flirting, not knowing he’d soon play the villain for most of the film.

Kapadia lays the foreshadowing on thick, assuming most of the audience knows the ending. But by the light-hearted laughs and knowing “hmmms” from my senior moviegoer friend I realize she has no idea what’s coming. She doesn’t know he dies in the end.

At this point I start to worry. I know what’s coming so I’m emotionally prepared for his death (or I think I am). She doesn’t. He’s just a handsome Brazilian man in a speedo, which I think I also heard her “hmmm.”

It’s impossible to watch the film and not love Senna just a little bit. His drive. His strength. His commitment.

And then he’s dead. Kapadia doesn’t hold back. We see him die. We see his lifeless body. We know the result. It’s violent. It’s Christ-like.

A lump forms in my throat. I can’t help it. I start to tear up. The movie theater is silent. It’s uncomfortable. I’m in back, she’s a few rows up, her head is down. Is she crying? I don’t know. I feel bad for Senna. For his family. For this old woman. In light of recent events it’s all fresh.

The film ends. The lights go up. We meet in the lobby. Did she like the film?”

“Oh, yes. It was really well done,” she says.

“I agree.”

“How long was it?” she asks me and the projectionist/ticket taker/concessions stand guy.

“About 140 minutes,” I reply.

“Seems shorter, how fast were they going?”

“Easily 150 to 160 mph back in the late ’80s and early ’90s and closer to 200 mph on some of the longer straights,” I say, although as I explain it I’m not 100% sure I’m correct.

After a discussion of speed I wonder if she’s picked up on some of the nuance, like Senna talking about removing a tire wall at a certain corner before a race and that insistence on his part sparing his rival a nasty crash.

“Oh, no, see. I didn’t get that.”

We continue to discuss how much we enjoyed the film, how F1 works, and what it would have been like if Senna were alive today. I expected to see the movie with a bunch of fellow gearheads. People who “got it.”

It was better this way. Talking to someone who went in fresh. Without a bias. Someone who didn’t take the joy of racing as a given, or the importance of living for granted. She left with more answers and, honestly, I left with more questions.

Should he have quit while he was ahead? Was it all worth it? Who is to blame? We’ll never have good answers to those questions.

But is it better to see Senna with someone who lives and breathes F1? Nope. It’s better to see it with your grandma. Or someone’s grandma.

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