Director: Asif Kapadia
Cast: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost
My Rating: 8/10
In Short: Well made but not exceptional documentary
Hailed by many as the greatest documentary of the year (some have even called it the greatest film of the year in general), but snubbed by the Academy for the Best Documentary category, Senna is the interesting story of the “fastest man in the world,” Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who died on the track in an unexpected crash when he was only 34.
The film focuses mainly on Senna’s career. His childhood and motives for a love of speed are briefly touched on, but the film consists entirely of stock footage from races, interviews and the press. This is an interesting approach – we see no friends recalling their relationships with Senna (but there is narration recorded for the film), and the filmmakers want us to focus on Senna’s life in the moment, rather than recalling it like a distant memory.
This gives a tremendous sense of plot anticipation. Documentaries in general don’t have a “plot,” so to speak, but are usually just a series of images and interviews arranged in order to inform people. Senna, to me, felt less like a documentary and more like an actual film. This gave the film some added depth, and made it easier and more enjoyable to watch. It sets it apart from most other documentaries (though I must confess to not having seen a large amount of them). Senna felt different; new. It can be risky to make a documentary about someone who is deceased using solely footage of them when they were alive and nothing additional, which sets the film apart from the documentaries of say, Werner Herzog. Senna is a story of one man’s uprise and downfall. But it accomplishes so much more than just touching on those two basic planes of plot depection. There are numerous uprises and downfalls. Senna’s career, the film tells us, was little more than a series of Grand Prix championships, various other titles and track races that Senna either won or didn’t win. It depicts him as a man driven to succeed, who believed in God and trusted that God knew what he was doing with him.
The film depicts Senna’s war with fellow driver Alain Prost, a war which was more than bad words and the screeching of tires. The film depicts racing as a cutthroat sport that you will not succeed in unless you have a talent. Senna’s problem was that he overestimated his talent. Throughout the various races, we see in Senna an eventual dawning realisation that the winning, which once made him happy, no longer does. When he wins, he is not happy. He’s content, but not happy. He expects it of himself. When he loses, which is rare as the film goes on, he is more than disappointed. He is angry at himself. Losing, for Senna, is no longer an option. It is either he wins, or he wins.
It is this attitude that many believe is responsible for his death. Though it was later confirmed that his car had failed him on a vital turn, many believe (and I suppose I do too) that Senna was perfectly capable of turning properly, but tried too hard to be that extra bit faster that it killed him. Senna was a great man, but it was his driving ambition to drive that pushed him over the top. We see footage of fans being interviewed after and between races; one memorably says that he is the only good thing that has ever come from Brazil. I can only imagine the pressure statements like this must have put on Senna. If he lost a race, he was no longer letting himself down, he was letting them down too. Though we see Senna with girlfriends occasionally, he struck me as a particularly lonely man. He enjoyed human contact very much, but to him nothing was more comfortable or desirable than the seat of his car, a friendly place to which his body had become so accustomed.
As a documentary, Senna impressed me. But as a general film, it did little more than meet my expectations. I expected a good film, and I got a very good one, but I must say that I think it was a tad overrated. Don’t think I mean that in a bad way, because I don’t. I’ll remind you that I did really, really enjoy the film, but it is far from the masterpiece many have made it out to be. It deserved an Oscar nomination, definitely, and it’s an outrage it didn’t get one, but ultimately, Senna is little more than a well-made, informative documentary. I give it 8/10.