To be honest, I think all auto racing is a massive waste of time. With the exception of the design, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Formula One and NASCAR cars. Therefore, Senna, the biography of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, came as an extraordinary surprise. Senna is a film full of dramatic turns (no pun intended), with amazing images and a thrilling story of a life lived fast and far too briefly.
The film has two points already: first, there are no on-camera interviews from those who knew or worked with Senna, a technique used to great effect in other documentaries like Judy Garland: By Myself, Finding Lucy, and Michelangelo: Self-Portrait. Instead, all the interviews, in English and Portuguese, are just heard while the footage plays over it.
Second, Senna has all archival footage, but soon you forget that this is a documentary. The film soon becomes something quite extraordinary: an exciting racing film, one where you are with Ayrton Senna in his greatest victories and most agonizing moments. Like the films mentioned, in Senna we get to see the evolution of the man and thrill to his extraordinary accomplishments on the race track.
Senna takes us through the life of the racing legend, starting from his early days go-kart racing for Brazil. He quickly moves up the Formula One rankings, and is soon placed on the same team as established racing giant Alain Prost. Soon the two become bitter rivals, their feud fought on the courses of various Grand Prix races. The antagonism between the Frenchman and the Brazilian was not helped by the fact that the FIA (the organization overseeing the auto races) was headed up by a Frenchman (Jean-Marie Balestre), who made little secret of his favoritism. Senna not only had to compete on the race track, but also fought a battle against the politics within the FIA to have his place in the sun.
However, as Senna shows us, Ayrton's skills simply could not be denied. In visually thrilling races (thanks to film shot from Senna's own POV via a camera in his car), we get to ride alongside him as he racks up victories after victories. Over time, he becomes an icon in Brazil, even appearing on the Christmas special for Xuxa, that most buxom of Brazil children's television programming. We also get glimpses into his private life: his concern for the poor in his homeland, specifically children, and a fierce love for his Brazil (as well as Brazil's fierce love for Ayrton Senna).
Senna paints a portrait of a young man for whom racing was not a hobby, or even a passion. Instead, it was where his very being was in: the purity of Formula One racing, the athleticism within it, the enthusiasm it unleashed in him for life and for his God. Various times in Senna, we get to hear from Senna himself, and he comes across as someone we like: a pleasant, almost shy individual, but a calculating racer: calculating as in methodical and efficient, not manipulative or deceitful.
Director Asif Kafadia has taken hours of film footage from interviews with Senna himself, as well as both past and present interviews with his family, news reports and the races themselves to create one of the most exciting and intimate films about an athlete. This is a sport that isn't as big in America as something like football or baseball, but Senna makes the case for him being a true sports icon: a man who was brilliant at pulling victories from almost insurmountable odds. One race in Senna is especially poignant.
Despite being one of the greatest Formula One racers who was now revered in Brazil in the same way as Pelé, Senna had never won the Brazilian Grand Prix. To have so many victories but still have never won in his homeland was a source of quiet frustration for Senna. In Senna, it appears he will again not be in the winner's stand, but despite being stuck in 6th gear (which I understand makes things difficult for racers), he still manages to win before the home crowd. The victory overwhelms Ayrton to where he faints briefly in his car, the shock and joy being far too much for him. Once he comes around, his body still tense with the thrill of winning before his people, he greets his parents with the pride of the family being also the Pride of Brazil.
Senna does take us to the thrills of his victories, and yes, the agonies of his defeats. It also brings us to the San Marino Grand Prix. From the beginning of that sequence, it looks as though there's a curse on the place: one driver survives a gruesome accident, another is killed in a practice run; both these events leaving a visibly distraught Ayrton highly concerned for his colleagues and himself. Even though we know how it ends, his own crash at first appears remarkably tame by some of the others we've seen, but we then see his body perfectly still, and we know...
At his funeral, one that was a state funeral in all but name, we see a beautiful juxtaposition between those mourning Senna (his parents, Xuxa, even Alain Prost), and when they knew him. This is the high-point of the brilliant editing work of Chris King and Gregers Sall. It is a beautiful, respectful, and heartbreaking montage.
In fact, Senna plays like a movie, full of drama, action, excitement, intensity. It isn't hard to imagine that if Ayrton Senna's life were made into a feature film, he could easily be played by Andrew Garfield (who as Eduardo Saverin from The Social Network has already played a Brazilian) or Zachary Levi. If Senna were a feature film, it might not be believed. The fact that it was all true makes Senna all the more amazing.
The portrait of Ayrton Senna in Senna is one of a good man, one who loved God and loved women, one born to weath but devoted and beloved by the common people, a man passionate about his native land of Brazil, and a brilliant athlete. I will go on record in that I still wouldn't care to watch any kind of auto racing and don't know or care about the sport, but Senna is not about Formula One racing. Senna is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary man, athlete, and human being.