Senna begins quietly, without foreshadowing or bombast, or Icarus analogies, or talking heads. There’s only aural commentary from those who knew Ayrton Senna, the magically confident Brazilian Formula 1 driver who arrived on the scene in 1984. His rise was meteoric, but this great documentary stays grounded, following his career path with steady introspection, race by race, season by season.
There’s no way Asif Kapadia’s movie could fail to satisfy racing fans, particularly those who remember the heady days of Senna’s ascendancy. The narrative is just too strong, particularly the clash of sensibilities with his great rival Alain Prost, ice to Senna’s fire; the cockpit footage through chicanes and dog-legs, much of it previously unseen, puts us in each fraught moment. The shaping of Senna’s story is so methodical and contained that it achieves a mournful scope.
Kapadia and the film’s writer, Manish Pandey, know that merely declaring how special their subject was is the stuff of ordinary hagiography. Instead, they set about proving it.
Senna, as they present him to us, was a combustible mix: superficially fearless, yet racked by inner doubt. He soared above the sport’s politics on the track, but was mired in them so frequently off it that he sometimes considered throwing in the towel. This wasn’t possible.
He was a wizard in the rain, which came to his rescue in key races like a benediction from above. Kapadia and Pandey don’t belabour his faith, but nonetheless manage to make it integral to our understanding of the man. And every one of their interviewees, from McLaren boss Ron Dennis, to his sister Viviane, to Sid Watkins, the on-track medical chief who became his friend, reveals a vulnerable or quixotic side to his personality.
Like all memorable sporting icons, Senna was a magnet for drama. His relationship with Prost fascinates, as much for the shifting body language, which could go from joshing to cut-it-with-a-knife cold, as for their combative manoeuvrings to clinch races. He faced an even frostier nemesis in the shape of French FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre, with his Bond-villain glasses, odd finger-stabbings, and obstructive rulings, which came to be viewed by Senna as the stuff of vendetta. Kapadia navigates this with an impressively shrewd hold on tone, but the real test of his film’s mettle is the climax.
Shattering in the gentlest way, edited with rare care, it’s an affirmation of all the bonds Senna forged in his life — with his family, colleagues, the people of Brazil. To emerge unmoved is just about inconceivable.