MOVIE REVIEW | Senna (2010)

Senna-poster

When you are fitted in a racing car and you race to win, second or third place is not enough.

I know I’m watching a good documentary when its subject matter is something I know absolutely nothing about, but I’m drawn in immediately. I know I’m watching a great documentary when I know enough about the subject matter to know I have no real interest in it, yet I’m still drawn in immediately. I have close to no interest in motorsport in general. I have literally zero interest in Formula 1. But I think it took all of about six seconds for me to be fully drawn into and enthralled by Senna.


Ayrton Senna was the kind of superstar that even as a kid with literally zero interest in Formula 1, I knew who he was, what he did and why he was famous. I also clearly remember when he died in a racing accident at the San Marino Grand Prix on the first of May, 1994. Knowing about his death and knowing the documentary is inevitably leading to that moment is in no way a spoiler. The film makers know the shadow of that event is hanging over the entire movie, and they use that shadow to build amazing amounts of tension from the get go.

That get go starts with a teenage Brazilian Ayrton Senna racing go karts and making his way to Europe for the first time. From there, it seems inevitable that he will make the jump to Formula 1. In his first seasons, his cars may not be fast enough to win any championships, but his skill and drive to win were more than evident. Once on board with the McLaren Racing team, he becomes the superstar of my child hood memories.

The McLaren years also lead to the most interesting section of Senna on and off the track, Senna’s rivalry with team mate and French driver, Alain Prost. The relationship between these two, built on a delicate balance of rivalry, jealousy and grudging respect fills the large middle portion of the documentary and is borderline soap opera stuff in all the best ways.

As Prost fades into the background, Senna focuses more on the man of the title and a few years that would have been seen as a huge success for almost any other driver, but a bit of a step down for the man who was coming off three world championships. It also does its best to give us at least a glimpse of his life off the track. The life of a proud Brazilian who was aware of his good fortune, aware of the massive gap between his quality of life compared to the vast majority of his countrymen, and the efforts he made to close that gap.

The most impressive part of Senna is that it’s made completely from archival footage. Interviews, news footage and home video from the time make up 100% of this movie. There are no modern day talking heads or interviews with their hindsight aided opinions, no carefully thought out and scripted tributes. Senna is all about how people felt and acted at the time, how Senna lived and acted at the time, how these events unfolded and affected the world at the time. It’s an immediacy that completely drew me into a subject matter I usually couldn’t care less about.

Senna
Directed By – Asif Kapadia
Written By – Manish Pandey

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