Mark Reviews Movies



3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Asif Kapadia

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language and disturbing images)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 8/12/11 (limited); 8/19/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 18, 2011

There's surely a fictional cinematic account of the life of Ayrton Senna, widely considered one of the greatest Formula One racecar drivers to ever sit behind the wheel, that could be made, and let's be glad for a moment that Senna is not it. Instead, Asif Kapadia's documentary is a noteworthy exercise in nonfiction storytelling, solely for the fact that it manages to tell the story of Senna's professional life without a single moment that takes us out of its chronology. Not a single talking head appears on screen, with the interviews with Senna's surviving family and sports journalists serving as the narration for a life being lived. There are no staged scenes or still photographs to fill in narrative gaps where they might exist. Kapadia's access to archival footage is impressive; the coverage is sometimes staggering.

If the film seems more absorbed in the sport than the man, it comes across as reasonable. One cannot, from the portrait painted here, separate the two. Senna lived to drive and even, tragically, died doing what he lived and loved to do.

There is a fine line between passion and obsession, and he never gives the impression of latter. Here is the picture of a decent man with the most virtuous qualities of a sportsman—proud yet humble, victorious yet gracious, competitive yet fair. There's a lot to be admired about Senna, and Kapadia honors the spirit of the driver while hinting at the man off the track.

The film follows Senna's career from a brief glimpse of him steering a go-kart in the world championship race to meteoric rise in the F1 circuit. Driving in karts was "real racing," he says, and six years after that first appearance in a world championship for karting, he was an F1 racer, much to his parents' respect and dread. In the sixth round of his first year, he came in second place, even though he thought he had won, passing the leader of the pack just as the race was called for safety reasons due to a heavy downpour of rain. Senna thrived in the rain, and in one of the many extended shots taken from inside the cockpit of his car, we see him raising and shaking his hand in early triumph, simply because the rain starts falling.

Those views of races—especially those from behind the wheel—make up the film's most exhilarating and frightening scenes. There are hairpin turns at high speeds, blinding mists from the water kicked up by spinning tires, and barricades that become potential death traps, flipping vehicles into the air. After Senna's car hits one of these barriers (Somehow, he survives when the car lands upside down, his head smashing into the sand), he interrupts a drivers' meeting to open the debate on replacing them with cones.

The obstacles off the track provide unanticipated drama, as Senna enters into an unofficial but highly publicized rivalry with his teammate Alain Prost. Prost, unlike Senna, is seen as a deft politician in addition to being an exceptional driver. When the two crash into each other at the deciding race of the 1989 season, while Senna pushes on to finish the race (If he does not win, Prost effectively takes the world championship), Prost runs into the officiator's box to lodge a complaint. Senna, who the year before had taken the title of world champion, finds himself suspended on a technicality that other drivers take advantage of all the time. The question of whether that impact and another suspicious one that would occur a year later (This time in Senna's favor) were intentional remains unanswered, though the video allows us to draw our own conclusions. For the rest of their careers, the two are bitter enemies, digging into each other with accusations of cowardice or intentional collisions whenever the cameras are on them.

Senna lived his life in the public eye. Admired by the people of his native Brazil, who speak of him at the time as the only good thing their country has, he returns whenever he can to vacation with his family, make appearances on television (where he openly flirts with a host, only to be seen walking hand-in-hand with her in the next shot), and donate some of his earnings to local hospitals and education programs. In the footage, we see a happy man, content with his life and constantly speaking of making further progress.

As his untimely death draws nearer, he talks of how he hopes to use this dedication to self-improvement as a driver in his personal life. That was never to pass, and Senna is a eulogy—celebratory and ultimately heartening—for its subject and his legacy.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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