05 June 2011
The problem with most documentaries is that they are not very “visual”. This may go against what they are trying to achieve, which is to raise an issue to public consciousness. Yet, even though the manner with which they are made is visual, the majority contain talking heads and posthumous reflections on an event, person or concept without having anything visually interesting. Senna doesn’t belong to this group. Without a single talking head or a dramatic voice-over to add pathos, Asif Kapardia only uses the extensive archive footage from Senna’s career as a Formula 1 driver.
If you don’t know who Ayrton Senna is, you are probably not aware of Formula 1. Though, knowledge of Formula 1 or motor racing are not prerequisites to enjoy this film, which left me in tears at least twice during its brief 2 hours of running time. I could have stayed in that dark room and continue watching for hours on end.
We barely get glimpses of Senna’s life before he comes to Europe to race go-karts as a teenager. We quickly cut to his debut year (1984), through his first championship in his 4th year in the sport, his subsequent rivalry with fellow driver Alain Prost, and the tragic weekend in San Marino in 1994.
Allow me to digress a little. I am a big fan of Formula 1, have been since I was a little kid watching Senna in his red and white McLaren passing one hapless driver after another in late 80s. He is the sole reason why I got into that sport. I still think he is the greatest athlete of all time. Who knows what he could have achieved had he survived that crash in San Marino? Maybe he was going to win 3 more titles, or maybe he would eventually have succumbed to the domination of Michael Schumacher. Regardless, no one like him has been involved in Formula 1 since. And this documentary proves that it is not likely that anyone will. Now let me put my objective goggles back on.
Senna the driver and Senna the person are inseparable - he is a man hell-bent on winning, a devout Catholic, and incredibly humble. And he was fast. Too fast. Prost once claimed that Senna feels immortal because of his beliefs and that puts everyone at risk. There is footage of Jackie Stewart asking Senna why he was involved in more crashes in his first 3 years of racing than anyone else in their lifetime. Senna retorts back (very politely) that if you’re not going for the win, why race? Exactly, why race if you’re not going to win.
Senna had to overcome the politics that has been the bane of Formula 1 since time immemorial. But the film makes a brilliant case of not making Prost the cause for the apparent bias against Senna. They were both going for the championship and they were both incredible drivers, albeit with very different styles. Prost did everything to win, just like Senna.
The standout scene in the film is when Senna wins his home Grand Prix for the first time after many attempts. After he crosses the finish line, we cut to the on-board camera. He is frantically waving his arms, the stewards on the sidelines are hugging each other, people in the grandstands are going apeshit. We hear his voice through the team radio, he is screaming like he is in agony. He starts bawling, he loses control of the car and nearly hits one of the celebrating stewards on the track. He manages to avoid running over him. After a couple of corners he stops the car in the middle of the track. He passes out. They wake him up, he’s got spasms on his shoulder and hands. They drive him back to the garage, his father is there. Senna tells him to hug him very gently, it hurts. Tears running down his cheeks, he goes up to the podium. They give him the trophy, he cannot lift it. After a couple of painful attempts, he does. His eyes are screaming in pain. I don’t know when I started, but I was crying too.
Then, there is the inevitable finale.
Everything went wrong about that weekend, including the death of Roland Ratzenberger, the Austrian driver who dies during qualifying. It’s a shame, because his death was overshadowed by Senna’s. But the film does a very respectable thing and balances them out as it should - this is a film about Senna, not about the dangers of Formula 1 racing. Ratzenberger is given due respect.
You know it’s coming - as a Formula 1 enthusiast, that crash has been embedded in my brain since that day. I knew how it happened and the film methodically prepares you for it. But when it happens, it is simply devastating. I don’t think I was the only one in tears at the cinema.
Senna could easily be the best feature documentary I have ever seen. Regardless of how you feel about motor racing, go see this.