I took a break from my Mad Men re-watch marathon to check out this 2010 documentary about the career of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One champion, who died at the age of 34 after a crash in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
I’ve never cared about Formula One racing, and the only time when it’s on my mind at all is when Albert Park Drive becomes off-limits during the annual Melbourne Grand Prix. However I enjoyed the hell out of Rush, Ron Howard’s exhilarating 2013 film about the epic rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and a lot of fellow Rush fans recommended Senna as a sort of companion piece. At the end of the day, no matter how indifferent one might feel towards the subject matter, it’s the human drama that can win you over.
Senna is composed entirely of original footage drawn from newsreel, home movies and camera recordings from the championships throughout the years, with no attempts at event reconstructions or talking heads reminiscing about the past – the style that reminded me of the more recent Apollo 11 documentary. It focuses squarely on Senna’s professional career, with no preambles about his childhood and no detours into his personal life or family relationships. It’s perhaps unavoidable that Senna the person remains somewhat at a distance because of this pared approach, though the documentary makes his love for sport, strong religious faith and love for Brazil shine through.
Luckily, even with this lack of attention to most things that don’t directly relate to racing, Senna’s story is compelling. His affluent circumstances and supportive parents may have given him opportunities unavailable to most of his countrymen, but what took him to the top was his gift for speed and what his McLaren boss refers to as “intellect”. A big chunk of the film is dedicated to Senna’s clashes with his greatest rival, French driver Alain Prost, who at one point makes a prophetic observation that what made Senna dangerous was his belief that he couldn’t be killed.
It also covers bitter off-track battles with the Formula One bigwigs, driven by Senna’s distaste for playing politics and his stubborn belief in the best man winning. As in most sports movies, there are ecstatic and emotional scenes of victory; the image that stuck with me the most is Senna lifting his trophy on the home soil in Brazil, through the excruciating pain of muscle spasms that he endured while completing the final laps.
It was very easy to get drawn into the rise of a handsome, charismatic, driven and talented man in a dangerous high-risk sport; while the final stretch of the documentary, dealing with the fatal events at the San Marino Grand Prix and the national outpouring of grief back in Brazil, are incredibly moving. I’m still no closer to being a Formula One fan, but with this movie I was reminded why I always favoured the intensity of individual sports.