Cinema struggles to recapture the essence of real people and events. The pressure to be both accurate and entertaining in the telling – not to mention the challenge to appeal to both fans and a broader audience – complicates the tough decisions filmmakers have to make about what to include, and how, in their ‘version’ of a famous person’s life. Sport is perhaps the toughest of all, with the rare success of When We Were Kings highlighting just how difficult it is to make a compelling film from interviews and highlight reels. That film also underlines how few sports possess a character as interesting as Muhammad Ali, whose blend of the personal and the mythical transcended the boundary of his profession, and made for great cinema.
Senna, then, is something of a risk. Asif Kapadia’s account of the life and tragic fate of Formula One prodigy Ayrton Senna portrays a figure with both a fanatical fan base and a profile outside the sport dominated by his 1994 death. That it was made with the support of Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone offers little hope of objectivity either. The surprise, then, is that what could have been a straight recap of an often dull sport is in fact a master-class in onscreen drama, and ultimately tragedy.
Often closer in tone to fiction than traditional documentary, Senna achieves its power by living in the moment. Rejecting the overreliance of most documentaries on talking heads, Kapadia constructs his film entirely from contemporary footage, taking the audience inside the personalities, politics and high drama of Senna’s rise and fall. It makes for tense viewing. Footage taken from inside cars travelling at some 200 miles per hour, complete with deafening engine noise, make the race sequences more terrifying than anything that could be recreated in fiction film – giving The French Connection a run for its money – and by only speaking in the present tense about the onscreen action, will be gripping for those not intimate with Senna’s history.
Kapadia is the first to get access to both the Senna family and Formula One archives, and is able to use a wealth of previously unseen footage. With Senna caught both at home and preparing for races surprisingly often, Kapadia is able to cut the footage like a drama, building tension and meaning with every scene. Senna emerges as remarkable not just for his ability – he was three times world champion – but for his candour and intelligence. A figure with an unassailable urge to go faster, and to do so with a purity of purpose that constantly put him at odds with a politically compromised sport, he is a fascinating, complex figure.
The poignancy of the story is only enhanced by Senna’s spirituality, with Senna speaking openly and often about his faith, connecting his belief in God with the purity of racing. His deep love for his homeland, meanwhile, sees him so desperate to win the Brazilian Grand Prix that he drives an entire race in sixth gear, almost crippling himself. Having won the race, he is only able to life the trophy after his Brazilian fans cheer him on. It is a remarkable moment, and the film is littered with touches that would have fallen flat in a scripted film. Racing emerges as both central and somehow irrelevant, a conduit for a tale of a man struggling to achieve some sort of grace, and crashes that could easily belong to a rubbernecking TV show are instead loaded with tragic significance.
Like all great dramas, Senna features its share of villains. Arch rival Alain Prost is the slick political operator who uses dirty tricks to keep his nemesis down, while the head of the racing authority is the spitting image of a mob boss, complete with slicked hair, sunglasses and rants about his word being law. Providing several moments both hilarious and disturbing, his conduct in previously private drivers’ meetings offers a picture of a corrupt family turning on itself, with Senna fighting for his right to drive his way, and for more safety on the track.
That Senna ends in tragedy will be no surprise to those already aware of his story. Nevertheless, it does so in a manner that will be deeply shocking and emotional for both the initiated and the unaware. It is a testament to a film that manages to create thrilling, poignant drama from known history, and if Senna makes the heart beat fast before breaking it, it is all the more wonderful for that.