PARK CITY — (World Documentary) The precocious, handsome, religious and thoughtful Brazilian Ayrton Senna was one of boldest and most exciting race car champions of all time. He was also the last Formula One driver to be killed on the track, in 1994 at age 34, and his dramatic life story merits the attention it receives in this unexpected and very good documentary. Comprised entirely of archival news, TV and home movie footage, without talking heads, the Universal release from Working Title feels lavish by normal documentary standards and will have great appeal in such F1 hotbeds as Europe and South America, with domestic prospects less certain.
An upper class boy with adoring parents, Senna raced go-carts as a youth and there is even footage of him competing in the tiny vehicles in Europe as early as 1978. To the end, he regarded this entry-level tier of the sport as the purest; “It was real racing,” he said, without the politics, teams, sponsorship, money and technological issues of the professional realm that often plagued him.
Outstanding racing footage, often from the point of view of the driver himself, courtesy of in-car mini-cams, provides dynamic, even thrilling perspectives rivaling anything possible in feature films. It also puts the viewer exactly where one needs to be to witness the key moments of his meteoric rise in the competitive ranks, from his startling 1984 second-place finish in his first race at Monaco to his incredible victory, coming back from 16th position, to win the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix and, with it, the first of his three world championships. “He would take the car beyond its designed capabilities,” one admirer explains, while numerous clips reveal Senna’s audacious talent for slipping through the narrowest of openings to overtake other cars.
The natural core of the story lies in his developing rivalry with, and eventual hatred of, the French champion Alain Prost. Initially fellow members of the McLaren team in the mid-‘80s, the world’s numbers one and two drivers inescapably generated a competitive tension that developed into a “war,” as Prost puts it, especially after a 1989 incident in Japan that controversially cost Senna the championship and a six-month suspension. The enmity continued into the ‘90s as they jumped from team to team, although they eventually patched things up to the extent that the Frenchman can be seen serving as a pallbearer at Senna’s funeral.
In numerous vintage interviews, the lean, pensive young man analyzes his career as it unfolds, while also expressing love for his family and country (a feeling always wildly reciprocated by his fellow Brazilians) and his certainty that God’s presence was with him. A bit frustratingly, the film skirts any exploration of Senna’s private life, although footage of him with the Brazilian star Xuxa and other beautiful young women suggests he had no shortage of companionship.
For the benefit of non-racing fans, Asif Kapadia, a dramatic fiction director making his first documentary, might usefully have included some discussion of what of what separates the truly great drivers from the legions of the merely excellent. What is tragically clear, however, is that Senna’s fatal accident, at San Marino on May 1, 1994, was no fault of his own but due rather to questionable equipment in a car he was very uncomfortable with at a time when F1 engineering was in great flux.
Technical and musical aspects are first-rate. Although much of Senna’s commentary is in perfectly decent English, there is a fair amount of subtitled French and Portuguese in the film, including quite a bit from the subject’s parents and sister.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Documentary
A Universal release
Production: Working Title in association with Midfield Films
Director: Asif Kapadia
Screenwriter: Manish Pandey
Producers: James Gay-Rees, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Executive producers: Kevin Macdonald, Manish Pandey, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin
Music: Antonio Pinto
Editors: Gregers Sall, Chris King
No rating, 105 minutes