'Senna’ steers a course through the life of a racer
The documentary “Senna,’’ about the great Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, has a tough task. It should be well enough made not to bore either anybody familiar with him or anyone who has no idea who he is. The latter class would probably be native-born Americans. Senna’s not at all the household legend he is in South America, Europe, and parts of Asia. Grand Prix racing is video-game sport here. The movie’s assemblage of audio interviews poured mostly over astounding race footage is fit for a shrine.
Whether or not you know much about Senna’s life or sport, that on-track footage really gets at the physically grueling demands of professional racing. You see it in a way that you don’t when spending a day with televised NASCAR.
Senna raced in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He’d won a couple of world championships but hungered for an elusive Grand Prix title in his native Brazil, where for the 1991 race he drove a gimpy car to victory. When he crosses the finish line, he’s screaming as if he’s lost an arm. You assume he’s just expressing national pride. But when he pulls to a stop, you realize he’s in excruciating pain. His muscles have spasmed so badly that he can barely hoist the cup at the trophy presentation.
The initial 15 or 20 minutes is a collection of races, and while you admire both the director Asif Kapadia’s total immersion and his reluctance to make a basic talking-head film, you worry that the movie won’t go anywhere. But the old television footage turns compelling as Kapadia and a writer, Manish Pandey, introduce a rival, Alain Prost, the methodical, impossibly seductive Frenchman whom we see early coming on to a flustered talk show host. Prost claims Senna wanted to humiliate him and that was his weakness.
Incredibly, both men wound up driving Hondas for the British McLaren outfit. One of their first races as teammates was at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix. Senna leads at the start of the 76 laps - or about 161 miles - but Prost comes on strong (it’s not just for sexy TV personalities), and Senna seems to lose control of the car and crashes. Prost wins. Senna then goes on a tear and wins the world championship that year. He and Prost dominated the field, and, really, they were racing only against each other, which drove up the broadcast ratings and made both men very famous. At some point we see footage of Senna mobbed by fans in Japan, and it’s alarming, even by either Japanese or Michael Jackson standards.
That relationship reaches its nadir at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, by which time the movie has framed Prost as its villain. Senna is the national hero, a man who brought pride, inspiration, attention, and charity to, say, the favelas of Brazil. Kapadia could have dwelt on Senna’s love life or what truly made him tick. He loved women, but he was not the predator that his rival is made out to be. He wasn’t an enigma, but the movie renders him a mystery. That’s not a bad strategy.
The film wades into how technological advances in the 1990s turned Formula One driving into a slightly less grueling but deadlier sport (a few of the collisions are breathtakingly bad). By this point Senna looks changed, too, heavy, like he could sense the crash that would eventually kill him. Before he dies in 1994, he’s persuasively made to seem like the wisest, holiest man on Earth. He was 34.