Senna captures the rivalry, conflict and intensity of Formula One action
Were this tale of daring and rivalry on the racetrack not already true, Hollywood would have had to invent it.

Senna, an often thrilling documentary about the titular Formula One triple world champion, makes an unexpected case for so-called ‘reality’ drama. Watching the film, you realize how perfectly the actual story — or at least the parts of it selected for inclusion — fits the framework of established Hollywood sports-film formula.

Indeed, those parts already have, albeit perhaps by coincidence: the tale of Senna and his top adversary, driver Alain Prost, is remarkably congruent with the plot outlines of Tom Cruise’s racing picture Days of Thunder (1990). Given that the real-life racers’ antagonism was already highly publicized, it’s quite possible screenwriter Robert Towne simply tore from the headlines, as they say.

Watching such overheated real life play out in front of our eyes, like Hollywood melodrama come to life, is fascinating, even startling. Even without that context, however, the off-track, human dimension of Senna would remain compelling; the film includes remarkably candid footage of its subject, his associates and competitors that effectively captures the stakes involved in his quest.

What Ayrton Senna wanted, quite simply, was to not only be the greatest race car driver in the world, but to be the greatest race car driver who ever lived, even if he doesn’t quite come right out and say as much. Only victory, says one commentator, would do for him. He had an overwhelming need to drive daringly fast and leave his co-racers in the dust, even if that often meant pushing his car beyond its design capabilities.

From the beginning, Prost was Senna’s great rival — the film suggests that each knew immediately that the other was his biggest threat. So palpable and acrimonious was their antagonism, interviewees in the film claim it helped improve coverage and ratings for Formula One. Apparently, viewers at the time enjoyed the reality drama as it was unfolding.

As Senna laboured over the years to overtake Prost, he simultaneously became a Brazilian national hero. His own family may have been atypically well off within Brazilian society but, from top to bottom, the country’s citizens nonetheless saw him as their champion. (“I kissed Senna’s hand!” cries one man who meets his idol.)

If the film’s conflicts of personality are gripping enough, equally thrilling are the POV shots from within Senna’s car as he barrels down the track, squeals around corners and occasionally ploughs into walls. What’s valuable is how it shows how a driver navigates a racetrack — especially during actual competition, where fractions of a second are vital.

Time also counts in this film which, like many contemporary docs, gets a little drawn-out in the final stretch. That said, it remains terrifically entertaining, the perfect film to win over those who might not watch many — if any — documentaries.

When you’ve got real stars and stuntmen like Senna, after all, who needs underwhelming Hollywood make-believe?

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by: Kenton Smith