I don’t know anything about Formula One racing but the superb documentary “Senna” about famous F1 driver Ayrton Senna is a reminder that the phrase “ignorance is bliss” applies to the world of documentaries, too. Not knowing what’s going to happen in this movie makes it a very suspenseful story, set in this fascinatingly unfamiliar world of intrigue and danger.
That world is the Formula One circuit of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Brazilian Senna and his French arch-rival Alain Prost battled for supremacy of the sport, first as competitors and then as even more competitive teammates at McLaren Racing. Their styles were totally different: Senna, a devout Catholic, put his faith in God and his own intuition; Proust, nicknamed “The Professor,” outsmarted opponents with clever gamesmanship. Their wars are legendary in the racing world, but they’re fresh and exciting to a neophyte like me, and I was riveted by every new twist and turn.
“Senna,” directed by Asif Kapadia, depicts its subject life in unique fashion. The film is told entirely through archival footage of Senna both on and off the track. In old interviews, Senna tells us his life story: his early years on the go-kart circuit, his departure from Brazil at a young age to compete in Europe, his struggles against the political and possibly corrupt F1 brass, and his dream of becoming the world’s greatest racing driver. Family, friends, rivals, and journalists provide contemporary interviews about Senna but they’re only heard and never seen. Appropriately for a documentary about racing, the biggest effect that choice has on the film is pace; Kapadia never has to take time out from a race to pause for commentary, because the commentary is layered right on top of the action. The result is about as immersive as documentaries get. Senna’s own words put us inside his mind, and the thrilling cockpit point-of-view footage from the Monaco Grand Prix put us inside his car.
I’ve avoided discussing the end of Senna’s career and his rivalry with Prost even though they’re matters of historical record because, frankly I didn’t know them myself when I sat down to watch the film (if you’re curious before you see the documentary, just read the first paragraph of Senna’s Wikipedia page). Of course, Kapadia’s formal framework for the film suggests from the start a subject that cannot speak for himself and as “Senna” progresses, the director inserts more and more portends of doom: Prost threatening to drive his enemy off the track, Senna hopefully wondering what life has in store for him after he retires from racing. Slowly, the POV shots from inside Senna’s car feel less and less exhilarating, and more and more ominous. When the end comes, it is a devastating tragedy. The film reminds us that there is something beautiful about a man achieving his dream, and something so tragic when that dream ultimately destroys him.