Directed by Asif Kapadia and written by Manish Pandey, Senna tells the story of the eponymous Brazilian Formula One driver who rose to fame in the 1980s and became known as one of the greatest racers of all time, only to have his career abruptly and tragically ended in 1994 because of an accident. Although the material is ripe for a "Greatest Hits" documentary -- one that reviews the milestones in the hero's life chronologically, without engaging with his personality on a deeper level -- Kapadia paints a picture that is energetic, inventive and transcendent.
The filmmaker's approach is a curious one, but it is immensely rewarding. He hasn’t shot any new material for the film. There are no talking heads. Nothing we see here is what we usually get in documentaries of this type. The only new material is the voice-over commentary given by Senna’s contemporaries and his family members. Instead, Kapadia focuses on archival footage of Senna’s life, stretching all the way back to his introduction to Formula One. These images, sometimes even taken from intimate family home videos, serve to familiarize the audience with Senna with more authenticity than any interview could. Building on this close relationship between the audience and the hero, Kapadia breaks a barrier that could have existed for those not interested in racing (myself included).
This is not to say that there’s a shortage of racing footage or that they aren’t riveting enough to give everyone goosebumps. The intense competitive relationship between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost that is revisited several times and the final encounter between Senna and Michael Schumacher are such a thrill to watch on the big screen. But Kapadia reaches for something beyond these sensational auto-racing thrills. His comprehensive study of Senna’s life allows for an in-depth look into the politics of Formula One and better yet, an emotionally resonant narrative about Senna as a human being, not just a champion. Our familiarity with Senna makes the heartbreaking finale all the more perplexing.
The film’s real ace, in my opinion, is Chris King’s editing. I’m not at all surprised at how masterful he is at creating a coherent narrative from pre-existing footage given that I considered him one of the best editors of 2010 for Exit through the Gift Shop. Here, the task at hand is even grander since there is no Banksy or Shepard Fairey to lead the way. But King nails it again. He knows exactly what order to set the sequences in to control our heartbeat just as easily as our tear glands. He’s smart in gradually cueing us toward the ending without explicitly opening it from the beginning as well.
Sports documentaries rarely aim so high as Senna does. What Kapadia and his team do here is more than a documentary about a champion. Even though they leave the darker details of Senna’s life out of the film, they never fall into sentimentality. They bring Senna’s larger-than-life story to the screen without losing the essence of his life, how important he was to the world of racing and more importantly, to Brazilians. Simply put, Senna is one of the great biographies ever made.