Asif Kapadia’s Senna Takes Pole Position

Asif Kapadia’s Senna, based on the life of the late Ayrton Senna, succeeds as documentary, a sports movie, and a movie. It works as biography, as a morally-instructive fairy-tale about an improbably good-looking, intelligent, sensitive, and articulate sportsman (in a sport made singular by its technologically-enforced impersonal distance from its spectators), and finally, as a tragedy, because Senna is no longer with us. It captures the most salient aspects of Senna’s all-too-brief life, and situates them within the broader context of the sport of car racing; it works as documentary in the best way possible because it makes the non-fictional dramatic and compelling; and lastly, it works as a sports film because it makes the central contests of the sport it documents enthralling human encounters (it helps that Senna highlights the long-running and at times, bitter, rivalry between Alain Prost and Senna).

The brilliant Senna, three-time World champion, and the last Formula One driver to die at the wheels of his car, always stood out during his brief decade-long career, and not just because he was dazzlingly fast and skillful on racing courses, whether dry or wet. He was politically and socially sensitive and informed; he did not shy away from confrontation with the managers of his sport; he was concerned about keeping driving safe; and he was also not shy about exposing his moments of introspection, self-doubt and fears.

The archival footage Senna draws upon is astonishing in its detail, richness, intimacy and dynamism; Kapadia’s especial skill, in making this movie, lies in having put together a story, which at its tragic and inevitable conclusion, leaves us richer in knowledge about Senna, the driver and the human being, and feeling considerably poorer as we absorb the facts of his premature and tragic death in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. This last section of the movie is among the most wrenching segments of cinema that I’ve experienced in recent times; the sense of tragedy foretold, hovering gloomily over the heads of its protagonists, is almost unbearable at times.

The car-mounted camera stock footage we are privileged to witness in Senna makes clear Ayrton’s dazzling driving skills (to truly comprehend the frightening speeds and turns of F1 racing, the car-mounted camera is essential), but for my money, the best parts of Senna are the personal, intimate glimpses. And among all of those, one stands out in particular: a little segment in which Senna suggests that growth as a human being is harder than proficiency at Formula One driving. Senna notes that his skills as a driver have grown and reached a level which have made him possible to win a world championship; but he has many more years to live as a man, and there are, he feels, many more truths he needs to discover about himself and the world before his personal growth will be complete. It is a startling moment of frankness and wisdom from a sportsman who has not made the cardinal mistake of conflating a very particular talent with a broader, richer intelligence.

Senna’s death was a loss for his family, his country, and car racing fans; as this documentary shows, it was a loss for all of us who seek, in sports and sportsmen, answers to broader questions about our relationship to human striving and capacities.

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