Movie Review: Asif Kapadia's Senna

Three of the qualities that Senna brought to F1: massive talent in good conditions that became ethereal talent in the wet; total devotion to winning; and an intimate connection to God.
It would be a challenge to contain the full and complete life of even a moderately interesting man in just 104 cinematic minutes. If a man has lived in more than two cities, held more than three jobs and dated more than four women, the gift of that man's life probably can't be wrapped in an hour and four minutes of celluloid. Those paltry numbers don't even form any kind of template: Franz Kafka didn't merely spend almost all of his life in Prague, he spent almost all of it living in his parents' house and working a single job. Good luck fitting his tale into just 6,240 seconds.

So how, then, is one to condense the days of Ayrton Senna da Silva, the Formula One pilot whose talent ignited observers, whose turmoil ignited ratings, and whose love for his country ignited Brazil itself? Director Asif Kapadia attempts it in Senna, and while it could not do everything, what it does reveal about dreaming and stubbornness and tenacity and fallibility and talent and death is something you will certainly wish to see.

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Distilled from 15,000 hours of archival footage, Senna is less the story the man's time in F1 than it is a plot: What F1 stops did the genteel boy of 20 make to get from Santana, Brazil in 1981 to a left-hand sweeper in Italy called Tamburello in 1994? What story there is serves to highlight Kapadia's choices of Senna's most compelling moments: Monaco in '84 and '86, Japan in '88, Brazil in '91, saying of Prost, "This Frenchman is hard, he wants war." They are aided by voiceovers from those who knew him: his mother and sister, commentators like Reginaldo Leme, John Bisigani, a young(er) Bob Varsha and Dr. Sid Watkins, among others.

Both plot and story, though, showcase three of the qualities that Senna brought to F1: massive talent in good conditions that became ethereal talent in the wet; total devotion to winning; and an intimate connection to God.

As for talent, it wouldn't be far off to say that the Toleman team is best (if not only) remembered for being Senna's entry into F1 in 1984. Toleman's TG183B and TG184 chassis' were turned by Senna into machines capable of passing World Champions like Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg and James Hunt, and chasing down Alain Prost at a clip of three seconds per lap in the wet at Monaco.

Ayrton Senna documentary film
Senna alights at this and other familiar stops in Ayrton's early career: Portugal in 1985, Senna's first pole and victory in the wet driving a Lotus, having lapped all but one other car. Monaco in 1988, with Senna in rapturous form – the race was his, if not for him crashing after being told to slow down, only to lose focus. Japan that same year, when he balked on the grid and slipped to 14th, then regained first place after the rains came.

Yet those common ports of call in Ayrton's story are punctuated by God: Senna proclaiming "God gave me this chance" when he was signed to Toleman, saying he was "closer to God" after crashing out of Monaco, and saying of his come-from-way-behind victory in Japan, "I felt his presence, I saw God, he remains a part of me."

And not that there is any lack of it, but these moments are further backed by the thrill of his talent: it is just one of many such moments, but the onboard footage of him driving the McLaren MP4/4 around Monaco – hand on the gearshift and rowing through cogs – when he described the entire track as being a tunnel, is spectacular.

Ayrton Senna documentary film

It is that latter year, 1988, the first year of Senna's partnership with Prost at McLaren and the capture of his first World Championship, that the film takes more time for the story of the man, what he had become and what others thought of it. Prost disparages, but only after asserting that "he didn't want to just beat me, he wanted to humiliate me." Senna's mother, Neyda, said Senna promised early in his career to stop driving after he won the World Championship.

Jean-Marie Balestre, head of the FIA, not only asserted himself but always seemed to be doing it to the assistance of Prost and the detriment of Senna, Senna explaining repeatedly and in every way that "motor racing is my life," that winning was the only point of it, and that it was all he wished to do.

And the people of Brazil, still working their volatile way through a teethings of a new civilian republic, had in Senna – and his helmet in the national colors and his flag-waving ritual after every victory – a piece of Brazil they were proud to show the world: "He shares his victories with us," and "He raises the image of Brazil abroad," and "Here's a guy who waves the flag for good reasons," and "He's the only good thing about Brazil."

Ayrton Senna documentary film

And it is after Senna's second World Championship in that the film begins to turn to mortality and fatality; yet in spite of Prost's opinion that Senna "thinks he can't be hurt," it was Senna who said "I am as scared as anyone of getting hurt," Senna who walked to the spot of Martin Donnelly's crash in 1990 to remind himself of the dangers of racing, and Senna who, after crashing in qualifying for the Mexico Grand Prix in 1991, asked for changes to the tire barriers to make runoff safer.

Obviously, none of those fears prevented what happened at the Italian Grand Prix in 1994. It is the only part of the film we don't think was handled as deftly as the rest, which is excusable – with enough gloom in a single weekend for an entire season, it easily overcomes.

Ayrton Senna documentary film

No matter: it is the film, and the man himself, that overcome. A mourner at his funeral, practically an affair of state, said, "He represented the best of Brazil." In actuality he, and Senna, represent much more than even that. See it.

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