Ayrton Senna could have been a god. Not necessarily if not for the new documentary about his racing career, but if not for technology… at all. Let me rephrase - in a world where television, photography or print did not exist for some inexplicable reason, but race cars did, Ayrton Senna would have been a god. Here's the proof, thanks to director Asif Kapadia and his documentary Senna.
So first things first - the obligatory "you don't have to be a fan of Senna or even a fan of Formula 1 or even a fan of racing or even a fan of sports at all to enjoy this film" disclaimer. Maybe in the past you've been coerced by this sort of lead-on by a friend or significant other, only to suffer and moan. I asked my wife while leaving the Paramount Theater if she enjoyed the movie. My wonderful, accommodating, supportive wife, who has absolutely no interest in racing whatsoever (strike whatsoever - I think she might have an unhealthy and/or impure appreciation of Mark Webber and Jenson Button), responded, "How could you not?" From across the theater, my friend Eric, whose interest in sports essentially begins and ends with the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, hallowed be thy name, flashed two thumbs up (I'm not sure if this wasn't in honor of Roger Ebert, also in the audience), then pantomimed tears falling. Then two more thumbs up, so as not to end his review on an unmanly note.
If you want to read a professional review of the film, I'm not going to discourage you one bit. I'll try to give you a bit more than, "It was good," but ultimately my appreciation of Senna derives from the perspective of how it immortalizes Ayrton Senna, a god among men, as a human being. If you're disinclined to be all gung-ho about a documentary, I have some encouragement. Kapadia foregoes the typical talking head, television style interview with someone who knew Senna recounting their experiences and memories. Instead he lets the characters, primarily nemesis Alain Prost, McLaren team boss Ron Dennis and of course, Senna himself, tell the story, more or less chronologically, and in the moment. With hundreds of hours of footage available, from interview to candid behind the scenes to in-car, supplemented by more recent interviews specifically for the film, the narrative of Senna's rise to the pinnacle of the racing world is already extensively documented and well known, at least in a mythological sense. The drive and focus of that narrative then is a masterstroke of tireless research and judicious editing. Senna is undeniably a good film, full stop.
Senna, as the protagonist in the drama, develops as thoroughly as any of the best films you could name. One of the most controversial moments of his career, the infamous shunt with Alain Prost (our lead antagonist) at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, is suddenly recontextualized from its usual portrayal, with the background to color the incident (accurately, you could argue) as a righteous middle finger to the sport's governing body, and particularly its then demagogue of a master, Jean-Marie Balestre. In many circles, purists will cluck and bemoan the unsporting intent of Senna's defiance by charging for a gap and holding a line that would likely, and in fact did, retire both drivers from the race. The crash brought cheers from the audience in the theater. Senna went on to clinch the championship. Unsportsmanlike or the very illustration of competitive purity? There's room to argue but the context underlying the whole ordeal is undeniable.
My favorite sequence, and the one that honestly caused something to get in my eye, was the 1991 Brazil Grand Prix. Piloting a broken car, but having never won in his home country, Senna drove an impossible drive to cling to his victory. If the story ended here, it would be Roy Hobbs slamming the ball into the lights. Senna winning in Brazil exemplifies my theory that athletic competition can be art, or at least artistic. Senna's drive was a pure expression of the human spirit, and it is beautiful to behold. Seriously, truthfully beautiful. If you could package this segment of the film, a model of Micelangelo's David and maybe a recording of Mingus Ah Um, and send it all into space for aliens to understand what humanity is and is capable of, you wouldn't be doing the universe a disservice. Watching the footage of him on the winners' podium in sheer agony, try and fail, then try again to hoist his trophy over his head, and knowing that he wasn't doing so out of a need to satisfy his ego, but to salute his country and its citizens - it's moving. Best scene in the film? Discuss.
But this is all a bit like the Titanic, isn't it? Most racing fans know what happened to Ayrton Senna on May 1, 1994. We know every race, every victory, brings us closer to The Monster at the End of This Book. Raise your hand if you didn't know racing cars was a dangerous profession. Few serious accidents are shown in the film. Only the outcome of Martin Donnelly's career ending but amazingly not fatal 1990 crash is shown, his broken body lying motionless on the circuit. It's a nauseatingly frank shot. Rubens Barrichello's airborne shunt during practice at Imola in '94 that ranks in the majority of morbid but somehow requite top 10 crashes of all time lists. Roland Ratzenberger's fatal crash at qualifying for the same race. And finally Senna. It's jarring, even when you know it's coming.
Throughout the film are shots of Niki Lauda. Although he's never named either in narration or by subtitle, the burn scarred face of the three-time world champion, and still competitive driver at the time, is a frequent, looming reminder of the supposedly bygone age when the life expectancy of F1 drivers was not the job's mot vital selling point. But in the "modern" era, no one expected the greatest driver possibly in the history of the sport could be snuffed with so little effort on the part of the universe. To keep things in cinematic frame of reference, it's like Leonardo DiCaprio's character in The Departed taking one in the brain the second the elevator doors open. Except this is real life. It was tragic and will always be tragic, like the last man to die in the battle before a truce is called, but that doesn't make it senseless. If the Spirit of Racing Future floated down to Senna and handed him a signed declaration of his impending death, he'd likely have strapped into his wobbly Williams and tempted the Almighty's resolve. Because that loving, thankful, but nonetheless defiant middle finger to the institution he loved so much, whether we're talking racing or God, defined him as a human.
There's more to be said about Senna the citizen. The man who fought for Brazil. The man who established an educational foundation for poverty stricken children. The man who never denied or belittled his faith or his family, even at the height of his fame. This film isn't about those areas of his life, really. It's about Senna the driver, which encapsulated all of those qualities, virtues and vices. Go see it at 7:30 Thursday night at the Paramount.