Sports and film is a relationship that has rarely run smoothly. Akin to the differing styles of drivers Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, one is a spontaneous, unscripted (Mostly and hopefully) form of entertainment driven by competition and a will to win (Sports and Senna)
The other however is a much more premeditated, scripted, finely constructed piece of entertainment (Film and Prost) Senna however takes the sport of formula one and brings it to the big screen by telling the thrilling and tragic tale of who is arguably one of the greatest drivers ever, Ayrton Senna.
Formula one is a sport that only grabs my attention when its races reach the final five laps. It is one of the filmmaking achievements of the year that this documentary film is able for its entire 100 minute running time; evoke the thrills and excitement of the final five laps in a race. Senna is a film, which in refraining from the conventions of documentary filmmaking manages to move along at a quick pace, feeling more cinematic than your usual documentary yet too personal, real and informed than your usual drama.
What is important to note about Senna is that it is not about formula one. It is about a man and his obsessions, love, rivalries, trials and triumphs. Senna is a film made entirely from archive footage taken from sources ranging from the Senna family to the Bernie Ecclestone owned formula one archive footage. Asif Kapadia, Manish Pandey, Chris King and Gregers Sall all deserve immense credit for the way in which they have taken an immense amount of footage and constructed it into a coherent, gripping, exhilarating piece of cinema that does not feel like a compromise cut.
Director Kapadia is spot on in an interview when he compares this film to “GoodFellas” while comparing a documentary about a race driver to Martin Scorsese’s crime masterpiece may seem like an odd comparison, Senna has a similar speed in the sense that it shows a meteoric rise in a young man’s life over the course of a decade, before eerily slowing down to experience his plight day by day (Or in GoodFellas hour by hour). Senna is a film that also like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hints to a much deeper (And in this case existing) universe while never feeling like we are missing vital information.
Senna is also a film that raises many themes, ideas and questions that are applicable to all sports and all lines of work. The film touches on the symbolic importance of sports stars and (Like this year’s Moneyball) the love people have of a game in its pure form, untouched by the cruelty of money and the politics that accompany it. It is possible that Senna is a film, which will be more effective, emotional and memorable for those who like this reviewer knew nothing of significance about Senna or Formula one before viewing. While an appreciation and knowledge of formula one will most likely reward an alternatively satisfying first viewing, coming to Senna completely fresh will make the you couldn’t make it up moments (Of which the film has many) more unpredictable and startling.
There are many moments in Senna which highlight why the documentary format is ultimately the one that will best portray sport cinematically. While this film is about the man rather the sport, there are moments in this film that take place on the track that no scriptwriter could write and no audience member would believe if written. While it is easy to say that the filmmakers were gifted these moments, the shots they choose, the way they construct the scenes and the brilliant Antonio Pinto score that accompanies them are all underrated aspects of what makes these scenes work.
There is a moment in the film where Senna’s car is stuck in sixth gear yet he continues through the final seven laps due to his desperation to win. He then proceeds to have muscle spasms due to the immense physical strain of the race, and then we watch his face as he struggles yet succeeds in lifting the cup up for the celebratory Brazilians to see. Moments like this are not only rewarding thematically (The strains people will put on their body for an art they love, something that Aronofsky has recently portrayed) but is also a genuinely cinematic moment while containing emotions on Senna’s face that no actor could replicate.
Senna’s three act structure, the rise of Senna, his rivalry with Prost and that final weekend all represent different stages of a man’s life and different aspects of the sport he has dedicated his life to. The first act represents Senna’s love of the game in its purest form, the second the money and politics that engulfs enjoyment of the game at its highest level and the third the unbelievable danger and tightrope that all drivers face and walk. As somebody who has never given formula one much thought I can safely say that this film has changed my mindset about the sport and the incredible speeds at which those drivers are traveling.
Senna is also a film that deserves to go down as what Morgan Spurlock (Maker of Super Size Me) calls a “gateway documentary” a documentary that is essential viewing for those finding their feet in the genre. Senna is a film with all the thrills that fictional films occasionally (Or more cynically frequently) lack. It is a film with emotion, tragedy, and rivalry and offers an insight not just into the background workings of a sport but also the quite frankly ludicrous nature of the forces and regulations that surround it.
Senna has footage that you cannot believe exists and it is likely that footage of its kind will never be unveiled again. As we see the drivers bicker with the head of the FIA you wonder why cameras were let in behind the curtain and if this is the first time this footage is seen by a wide audience then it is a great unveiling for formula one enthusiasts. Overall Senna is a must-see, formula one fan or not, its a gripping, insightful, exciting filmmaking achievement and one of the year’s very best films.
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