Senna

9 Sep

Title: Senna
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Asif Kapadia
Writer: Manish Pandey
Starring: 
Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis
MPAA Rating: 
PG-13, some strong language and disturbing images
Runtime: 
106 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
8.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 
92%

 

As far as athletes go, Ayrton Senna is by far my favorite one of all-time, across all sports, in pretty much every single criteria you can apply to said decision. The guy was just fearless, a true master of his sport and fantastic human being behind it all. His untimely death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, which happened while he was leading the race, only adds to the legend of Senna. You hear drivers past and present talk about him as god amongst them all, as the guy who would do anything for a win, even risk his own life and the lives of others, but who was also an amazing humanitarian, and one time even stopped his car mid-race and ran across the track, risking his life as other cars zoomed by, only to help out a fellow driver who had crashed. That’s the sort of contradictions that marked the life of Senna, he would risk other people’s lives to win a race, but would risk his own, and lose the race, to help out a colleague.

Asif Kapadia’s masterful documentary is by far the greatest look into the man’s life you could ever wish for, one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, in fact, and you don’t really have to know all that much about Ayrton Senna to love this film, hell, you don’t even have to like Formula 1 to get absolutely immersed in this astonishing look at the greatest driver there ever was and ever will be. There’s not much you can say about Senna that hasn’t already been said, the guy donated millions of dollars to children’s charities in Brazil, his hometown where he was revered as a national hero, he won 3 world championships in 9 years, he had a 65 pole positions in just 162 races (a then-record for most pole positions which was broken by Schumacher in 2006, though the German took far more races to achieve it), he was voted at the greatest ever in his sport by a panel of over 200 of his peers. He achieved so much in so little time that it warrants that now you can have endless discussions about what could have been, about the lost potential. That’s the stuff that brings forth immortality, the brings forth legend.

And even though there’s not much left to be said about Ayrton Senna, this documentary manages to say all the great stuff in the best of ways, as it achieves a pacing that’s extraordinary for a documentary, and mostly because it manages to tell a story using cars and races and motors, but that at it’s core is a very human tale. It’s just a wonderful job what Mr. Kapadia and his team of editors have done here, they went through heaps of video tapes and clips, because Senna is a film constructed out of all sorts of archive footage, from interviews to home videos to footage from big races. And yet what it comes out looks as like any great fictional film you can think of from nowadays, with a tightly-constructed narrative about a boy who just wanted to drive racing cars, and who had to deal with a great deal of adversity both on and off the tracks, only to come out on top every single time, and always doing it on his own terms.

It also helps quite a bit that the story of Ayrton Senna sounds so much like a fantastic work of fiction. The man was a humble guy, religious to the bone and always super proud of his home country, a then-poverty-stricken nation who was lusting for a hero to call their own, and who got the perfect one in Senna. As for how he was in his chosen field, it’s even better, as he many times got in arguments about the political decisions that governed his sport, thinking that so much bureaucratic pandering hindered the sport he was so passionate about. It’s even appropriately cinematic that he had an arch-rival in Alain Prost, a guy who was also great on his own way, but that the movie makes seem as some sort of schemer who got along really well with the sports administration that Senna got into so much trouble with. It evidently wasn’t as clear-cut in real life as it’s made to look here, but that’s okay, because the vision Mr. Kapadia presents is too riveting to find any fault with.

It’s awesome to see those two sides of the man. He was a really sensitive man, always helpful and charming, a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve every single time, even when it could get him in trouble, a man who was in one of the most cut-throat environments imaginable but who always tried to tackle them head-on with decency and his dignity intact. That he was also such a relentless competitor who would do anything to win and would live to push cars beyond their limits only adds to the mysticism that surrounded him. It’s impossible not to feel for this man as you watch this film, not to absolutely love the fact that he was an impossibly moral man in world where morality had apparently long ceased to exist, and who, even though was in the highest form of competition his sport offered, would always long for the days in which he raced simple go-karts as a kid, only because money and politics weren’t involved in that at all.

The fact that a story that was already so unbelievable got to be told by a director as good as Mr. Kapadia is a gift to us as viewers. The guy is awesome at crafting some seriously well-honed sense of drama, a guy who gave a documentary about a race car driver the pacing of a superb thriller, and who had the best team of editors to instill in his vision the best narrative drive available, and even more amazing fact when you consider the 106 minutes of film you see here were taken from over 5’000 hours of footage, an editing process which took over a year and a half to complete. It was also a very wise choice not to show the interviews which he conducted in present day, but instead only using them as voice-over audio to aid the footage, that way we get a sense of his legacy while still being fully engaged to his life as he lived it. It’s just remarkable.

Senna is the best documentary I’ll see all year, and I say that without any knowledge of what may come in the next four months, I just seriously doubt anything will beat this one. The guy was my favorite athlete before seeing this film, and this only cements his position in my heart, the way his intensity is shown through footage, his passion, his altruistic sincerity, it’s all amazing. And then we get to his death, which Mr. Kapadia handles as perfectly as the rest of the material he shows us, with literally all of Brazil just heartbroken in mourning, the people at his funeral in a grief that you can actually feel because of how easy it gets to feel for Ayrton Senna after what you’ve just watched. When the film premiered at Sundance, the filmmakers talked about showing it to Ron Dennis, the head of McLaren who Senna raced for, and a man famous for being emotionally closed off and cool. They told the audience that after Mr. Dennis watched the film he cried for ten minutes and then proceeded to tell anecdotes about Senna for a couple of hours. Such was the power of Ayrton Senna, and you’ll need only to see this film to believe me.

Grade: A

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