After a successful run on the festival circuit, wowing audiences and garnering awards at both Sundance and the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this year, director Asif Kapadia’s documentary debut SENNA, begins its theatrical run in both New York and Los Angeles this weekend. Released jointly by Universal Pictures and Producers Distribution Agency (the company responsible for rolling out Exit Through The Gift Shop last year), in association with ESPN Films, SENNA surpasses the normal boundaries of both the documentary and sports bio, crafting a taut yet inspirational drama from pure archival footage. In a way, the film could be a documentary drama in the most literal sense. Chronicling the ten-year professional career of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, beginning in 1984 after his first win and ending a decade later in a tragic accident, Senna eschews traditional talking head interviews for a pure stream of archival footage, seamlessly cut together to fashion a clean, almost textbook-like, dramatic narrative.
A Brazilian child of means and happy childhood, Senna was a successful go-kart racer who, in 1984, entered Formula One and caught the attention of enthusiasts and fellow drivers by winning only his sixth race. Driving a lower-quality car than his competitors in rain and slick conditions, through guts, faith, and an unbelievable sense of control, Ayrton demonstrated his uncanny ability and genius for driving the first time. The first act follows Ayrton’s meteoric ascent from eager upstart to confident competitor, culminating in his addition to the famed McLaren racing team, anchored by then multi-championship driver Alain Prost.
This second, more dramatically tense segment follows the very public and personal rivalry between both men that energized the sport in the late 80’s. Both the verbal repartee as well as their controversial championship wins in 1989 and 1990, highlighted the political manipulations within the sport. Battered by the press and then F1 president Jean-Marie Balestre’s apparent favoritism of Prost, Senna emerged a bit wiser and wearier but still steadied by his unshakable faith and the adoration of his fans. A hero to Brazilians when the country was in political turmoil, Senna never turned his back on his fellow countrymen and proudly displayed his loyalty to home before the world. His eventual victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix was celebrated by thousands of Brazilians en masse, making for a sequence straight out of a classic Hollywood studio epic.
However, the film eventually slows down its exuberant pacing and with near-microscopic precision irises in on the final weekend of Senna’s career and life. Both driver and audience mull over each accident and troubling sign that altogether strike an air of tragic inevitability as the man climbs into his car for the last time. Kapadia’s decision to include literally the last few minutes of Senna’s life is both chilling and bold. The end result is not the arthouse equivalent of a snuff film, but it comes perilously close. The most arresting and brilliant technical aspect of SENNA though is its construction; utilizing a wealth of footage from news organizations, home movies, and most importantly FIA’s own archives, the filmmakers assembled a 105-minute masterpiece of dramatic editing.
Many of the shots, close-ups, POV sequences, etc. are cut together in such a way as to capitalize on dramatic effect. The examples are endless but a few stick out for sure. The brilliant inclusion of Senna’s own cockpit cam provides as close an approximation of the tremendous speeds and forces exerted upon both the vehicle and his body as possible. One can only watch in suspension as the wobbly footage belies the simple truth that at any moment this man’s body and vehicle could be pulverized with one wrong turn. And from what angle does the viewer observe this footage? Over the shoulder of course.
Perhaps the most poignant montage arrives at the inevitable end, as family and racing professionals pay their final respects to the man lying within the signature yellow-helmet and Brazilian flag-draped coffin. Each person, from his parents to McLaren manager Ron Dennis to his siblings and lovers, is juxtaposed against a flash cut of a moment of joy with Ayrton in the past. While the cuts are mere flashes, i.e. Senna’s mother approaching the coffin wearing black clothes and sunglasses against kissing her son on the cheek after winning an early race, to Prost himself, solemnly approaching the casket against a press conference moment of the pair laughing together, the effect suggest inner thoughts and memories for each individual. The technique again is nearly childishly simple and seen with any number of fiction films but the employment of it within this particular context is startling. Moreover, the sparse usage of voice over to provide context is perfectly executed. Rather than break up the narrative flow with a constant barrage of talking heads speaking effusively about Senna as a man and driver, the various interviews instead provide necessary context for the footage itself and guidance.
Again the sheer wealth of footage employed here allows the viewer to stay completely within context and feel as though he or she is watching a tale unfold in real time rather than a professional but lifeless series of montages. Senna himself though is amazing to observe on-screen as he is patently unable to hide his emotions on-camera. In addition, the ability to follow his ten-year career in sequence allows for his aging to unravel slowly, such that once one looks back on his entire career does the actual changes in his face from age become obvious. Throughout the years though, the man exuded thoughtfulness, confidence without crassness, and the insatiable, almost child-like desire to win. That early innocence slowly gives way to hard-earned wisdom and eventually weariness as the inherent politics of Formula One butt up against his desire to become the best by simply winning the race.
Interestingly, Senna’s primary rival, Alain Prost, comes across as the sport’s master manipulator – a point which is underlined by his consistent poker face in interviews and press conferences. His friendship with the then FISA president and political manipulations educate the viewer as to the game’s more backroom dimension, which unfortunately Senna learns about the hard way. Both drivers’ competitive spirits bring out the best and worst in each other, culminating in the 1989 and 1990 World Championships, which each man won controversially by sabotaging one another’s progress rather than winning the race.
This middle section again is fraught with natural tension and sets Ayrton up as a maverick challenging the system through no fault of his own. In a way, his tale parallels that of track legend Steve Prefontaine, whose desire to win and be the best competitor possible led to bureaucratic nightmares. The whole narrative of Senna’s career is intriguing to observe; exactly ten years from his initial rise to fame in Monaco in 1984 to his tragic end in San Marino in ’94, both events bookend an otherwise extraordinary life and career. The final chapter itself as the final race approached is constructed as to reveal ominous signs and portents for the driver.
Senna’s protégé Rubens Barrichello suffered a horrific accident during the qualifying round followed up by Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger’s tragic death the next day. Both incidents are shown in full, unflinching detail so as to highlight the horror of impact. The effect is not unlike Peckinpah’s usage of slow motion violence, meant to highlight the horror of such brutal force. Senna himself observes Ratzenberger’s crash and death on a press room television monitor and is visibly shaken. Ironically, when his own final moment comes, it is observed on a similar monitor as well.
The sense of dark foreboding is reminiscent of the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter. The slow building of tragedy within both films, i.e. Ratzenberger’s death and the various beatings on concert-goers by Hells Angels, build to spectacularly sad climaxes. Coming in at slightly under two hours, SENNA packs an emotional wallop that most fiction films strive for without descending into needless melodrama. It is interesting to remember too that before this film, another proposed Senna project was in the works with none other than Antonio Banderas set to play Ayrton. For whatever reason, that fictional version fell through but one can argue that not only has the next best thing come along, but the best version period. Frankly, who better to play Senna than Senna himself?