‘Senna’ is a deceptively rich, universal portrait
There’s perhaps no sport more strongly governed by non-performative factors than auto racing. The specs and maintenance of the car are just as important as the driver’s capabilities, not to mention the labyrinthine negotiations and backroom politics involved in team operation and selection. Asif Kapadia’s Senna is, at heart, about a man whose incredible talent tested – fatally – the very limits of his sport.
Born to a well-to-do Brazilian family, Ayrton Senna was fixated on racing from an early age, starting with go-karting, an activity he would think back on fondly for its quality as “pure racing.” That’s no surprise, as when Senna eventually became a Formula One driver, his life became immeasurably more complicated. He quickly developed a bitter rivalry with eventual teammate and racing superstar Alain Prost, who the film posits as a sly manipulator but demonstrably less-inspired driver. Prost’s close relationship to top F1 brass helped to keep the older driver on top for a time, but Senna’s skill and tenacity made him a difficult foe to keep down for long.
Kapadia’s approach to crafting a portrait of Senna’s career actually serves to heighten our intimacy with the subject, even if his personal life barely enters into the equation: the film is made up entirely of existing footage from Senna’s races, home movies, and media appearances, with the usual talking-head sequences eschewed in favor of intertitled voiceover. A good portion of the racing footage is taken from car-mounted cameras, which offer a nearly first-person view of the 300 km/h+ races. (The use of this footage late in the film is spooky and affecting, for obvious reasons, though carefully employed so as to avoid any Faces of Death-style morbidity.) The non-racing footage is used relatively sparingly, but speaks volumes; a New Year’s Eve television appearance is particularly revealing of Senna’s easygoing candor and charm – when not in competitive mode.
Despite being almost unilaterally centered around an exceptionally technical sport, Senna manages to universalize its subject’s appeal without feeling reductive or simple-minded. Not unlike in the better entries of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, sport itself is held here as simply an elaborate testing ground for the mechanics of human interaction; look deeply enough and you’ll spot relationships, hierarchies and prejudices as complex as the inner workings of any vehicle. Senna’s struggle with and against these “impure” forces forms the thematic crux of the movie. It’s very much to Kapadia’s credit that he’s able to communicate the universality of Senna’s life and work without resorting to cheap sentimentality. (At least, not often – the tear-jerking retrospective editing in the closing funeral sequence, while undoubtedly touching, smacks of open manipulation.)
Kapadia’s editorial approach makes for a much more emotionally bracing work than another recent widely-acclaimed doc, James Marsh’s Project Nim. Kapadia’s triumph here is not having drained his film of style; he’s simply rendered it as unobtrusive as possible in the service of his material. Documentarians, take note.