Amazing Race

Amy Taubin on Senna: “He was an artist and a superhero...”

Asif Kapadia, Senna, 2010, stills from a color film, 106 minutes.

PERHAPS YOU HAVE NO INTEREST in Formula One racing. Perhaps you’re resistant to documentaries in general. Neither of these should keep you from seeing Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010), a marvel of a movie that has at its center the very thing one longs for and seldom finds on screen today: a brilliant, charismatic, romantic hero. Three times a world champion in a ten-year career, the Brazilian racing car driver Ayrton Senna is considered by aficionados of the sport to have been the greatest driver of his generation—and perhaps of all time. He was also wildly handsome, generous, honest, intelligent, and intensely spiritual. He loved racing, his family, and his country. He donated millions to educating poor Brazilian children. He faced down the Formula One hierarchy that looked on him as an upstart from a third world country—not that that prevented Formula One from capitalizing on his audience appeal—and he challenged himself in every race, not only to win but to achieve the perfection of a form. In other words, he was an artist and a superhero, who tragically is unavailable for a sequel to the most exhilarating and heartbreaking action movie of the summer. Senna was killed in 1994 in a race about which he had grave misgivings, but from which he could not bring himself to walk away.

Like Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything Is Going Fine (2010), that director’s portrait movie of Spalding Gray, Senna consists entirely of archival footage. Kapadia, producer James Gay-Rees, and writer–executive producer Manish Pandey, as well as the production company Working Title, convinced the Senna family to give them the documentary rights to Ayrton’s life story and also to home videos, family photos, and other memorabilia. From Formula One honcho Bernard Ecclestone they received unlimited access to the entire F1 archive, including meetings between drivers and management, interviews, and onboard camera recordings. (In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Senna argues furiously with France’s head of F1 over an issue of driver safety, something none of the other drivers in the meeting dare to do—and Senna wins.) In addition, the filmmaking team collected TV footage from ten countries. When they began editing, they had five thousand hours of film and video, which then took them more than a year to edit down to seven hours, and many months more to streamline into a thrillingly paced 106 minutes.

Although Kapadia relies on voice-over commentary—much of it from Senna himself—there are no talking heads. You’ll need to go to Google for hard information about Formula One’s complicated scoring procedures or to get an overview of the economics and politics of the sport, or even to find out the details of the controversy around Senna’s fatal crash. Senna makes no bones about disliking the politics. He was happiest, he says, when he drove go-karts in his teens: “That was pure driving, pure racing, that made me happy.” Given his intensely competitive nature, however, he had no choice but to enter Formula One, because that’s where the greatest drivers are. Although he fought the F1 authorities and the car companies over safety, he took risks that angered rivals and teammates (sometimes one and the same), who felt he put their lives as well as his own in danger. But he was adamant about competing to win. “If you refuse to go for a gap,” he said, “you are not a racing driver.”

For all the kinetic excitement of the racing sequences, this is an extremely intimate movie. Action and subjectivity come together most powerfully in the extended onboard camera sequences in which we are locked into a point of view that’s almost exactly the same as Senna’s. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment in the movie was recorded by a tinny microphone on an onboard camera. As he crosses the finish line to win the Grand Prix in Brazil, Senna lets out a long wailing sound—a mix of physical release and out-of-body exultation—like nothing I’ve ever heard before. And then, of course, there is the heart-in-the-throat agonizingly long onboard camera POV of that tragic final race, which mercifully cuts away to a long shot just a second and a half before the crash. I asked Kapadia if he cut away from the onboard camera footage because of morality or taste. He answered that he had used every frame of the shot he was given. The tape went black just before the impact, but he was unable to ascertain whether the camera had malfunctioned or something was erased after the fact. So what’s absent from the movie becomes part of the still unsatisfactory explanations of the tragedy.

If the picture editing by Gregers Sall and Chris King is amazing for its seamlessness in cutting among the coverage of four or five TV crews to form a single dramatic scene, the sound design (by Andy Shelley and Stephen Griffiths), in which Antonio Pinto’s surging romantic orchestral score figures prominently, is even more extraordinary. The digitally souped-up sound that nevertheless allows voices—particularly Senna’s—to retain their fragile expressive qualities is what gives the movie the expressive scope and weight of a big-screen action epic.

Senna opens Friday August 12 in New York.