Brazil’s Ayrton Senna was the boy genius of Formula One racing, winner of three world championships before dying in a crash in 1994 at age 34, a driver current and former Formula One racers recently voted the greatest who ever lived.
But if all Senna could do was race, this wouldn’t be much of a story. Though he could drive like the devil, Senna was a spiritual person who believed deeply and profoundly in a higher power. A philosophical mystic with a jewel thief’s nerves and a poet’s sensitivity, not to mention killer good looks, Senna was an altogether remarkable individual. And a deeply contradictory one.
On the one hand, Senna was a sensitive, articulate man who wore his heart on his racing sleeve, someone your own heart can’t help but go out to as he tries to maintain a sense of decency and dignity in cut-throat surroundings. But Senna was also the fiercest competitor imaginable, someone who lived to win and never hesitated to push cars beyond their designed capabilities. Triumphing at Formula One, he tells one interviewer, is "something so strong, like a drug. Once you experience it, you search for it all the time."
More than anything, Senna was a driver who wouldn’t play the game, a moral person in an immoral world who loathed the politics and the injustices he felt he saw all around him. It’s not for nothing that Senna begins with the driver talking about his teenage years as a go-kart driver. "It was pure driving, pure racing," he says, looking back with a kind of longing. "There was no money, no politics, it was real racing."
Senna’s story is in fact so compelling that at various times directors like Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, Walter Salles and Antonio Banderas were reportedly contemplating features. Yet Senna’s director, Asif Kapadia, turned out to be someone who’d never been to a race.
Yet Kapadia (whose debut feature The Warrior won the British equivalent of an Academy Award) brings essential gifts to the table. He has a keen sense of drama, a gift for narrative drive, and the kind of unerring eye necessary to cull 104 minutes of film from 5,000 hours of archival footage from 10 countries (the editing of the film took a full year and a half).
Not just any footage, either. Aided by screenwriter Manish Pandey, a Formula One enthusiast who was essential in getting the cooperation of Senna’s family and the equally protective Formula One hierarchy, Kapadia and his editors Gregers Sall and Chris King had access to material no one else had been able to use before.
This includes intimate home movie footage, shots taken from inside Senna’s car while he was driving, and riveting footage of frequently tempestuous drivers-only meetings held before each race. Looking at endless interviews, the filmmakers also made use of the fact that Senna had been more candid and forthcoming when talking to Brazilian TV than had previously been known.
Kapadia conducted numerous contemporary interviews for Senna, recording the driver’s family and experienced journalists like ESPN’s John Bisignano and Brazil’s Reginaldo Leme. He also made the bold decision not to show the people interviewed, using their comments strictly as voice-over. It turns out to be a wise choice, enabling us to stay completely involved in the reality of Senna’s life as he lived it.
The game that Senna detested playing started with his first significant race, the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, where the Brazilian, described as a genius in the rain, came from 13th place to almost about win the event before a controversial maneuver gave it to France’s Alain Prost.
Prost, a four-time world champion, turned out to be Senna’s bête noir, a driver whose calculating, legalistic personality led to his nickname of "The Professor." The savage rivalry between these two is something to behold, leading to on-the-track encounters at the 1989 and 1990 Japanese Grand Prix that have a potent symmetry.
Senna was such an innately dramatic personality that every race he took part in feels like the most intense possible. Until you see the next one. Perhaps his most emotional race was the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, an event which Senna, a national hero in his home country, was desperate to win. The emotions and physical strain this exceptionally arduous competition put him through beggars belief.
Speaking at Sundance, where the film won the world documentary audience award, screenwriter Pandey talked about showing the film to Ron Dennis, the head of the McLaren Group that Senna raced for, a man known for being unemotional and for being so conscious of not wasting time he has a car and driver waiting for him everywhere he goes.
"After the film ended, Ron Dennis cried for 10 minutes," Pandey recalled. "Then he sat and talked about Senna for two hours." Such is the power of this man, and this film.