You don’t have to “wanna go fast,” like Ricky Bobby, to find Sundance Award-winner Senna‘s Formula One racing ride thrilling — as well as captivating, chilling, and surprisingly sublime.
The documentary’s star is Brazilian racing legend and three-time World Champ Ayrton Senna. Fresh off the boat, so to speak, at 17 he lands in Europe determined to graduate from his childhood karting passion into a Formula One racing career. At the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, his first time racing a Formula One car, he deftly advances from 13th to second place and nearly wins until the race is stopped for — as he grumbles — “political’ reasons.
A year later he wins the Portugal Grand Prix on a slippery track in the rain: his favorite conditions. With talent, determination, and youth, it would seem like nothing could stop him from leaving all other competitors in the dust. Thankfully (for the dramatic conflict it provides), many people and forces do, from politics to mechanical malfunctions, car-shredding crashes, unjust disqualifications, and a prime-time war with his nemesis, The Professor, French World Champion Alain Prost, who publicly declares his desire to “punch him in the face.”
Arguably the most beloved breed of sports hero, Senna pushes the envelope and triumphs against the odds, from a jammed gear shift to the political bias of FIA officials. You can’t help but hold your breath and cross your fingers. It’s a topical advantage that director Asif Kapadia revs up by permitting viewers the best seat in the stadium: he chronicles Ayrton’s adrenaline highs and ego-crushing lows with footage from the on-board cameras in his car. Add to that ample press clips of interviews with him inside and outside the racing track, as well as his colleagues, sportscasters, journalists, and family members. It’s as close as Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey can get you to reliving Senna’s rocky road to racing fame from the driver’s seat and the stands. Senna the film also serves as a history of Formula One and its growing pains, especially in the safety department, where Ayrton’s protests pave the way for a future free from deadly collisions.
What takes the movie beyond the realm of spectator sport, however, is something more profound. Well-placed quotes and interviews seem to capture a sliver of Senna’s soul, shedding light on a beloved icon’s inner struggles. He’s a racer regarded as uncommonly humble, always striving to “keep getting better as a driver, and a man” while scorned by others for his devout claims that God is his copilot and the reason he wins.
Senna accelerates to its end with a growing sense of fate, ominous portents, and an untimely twist with a biblical punch line. A dramatic end to a documentary that witnesses a life speeding to the brink and beyond.
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