Ask me my opinion on Nascar, and I’ll probably smirk at you and quote from Jeff Dunham’s comedy sketches: “Ooo, they’re making another left turn!” People who would disagree with me about whether or not the so-called sport is exactly that would site the grueling marathon-like conditions on the track and inside the car, and the toll it takes on the racers, but it just doesn’t seem the same to me. Now, Formula One racing; that’s a different beast altogether. For one, the track isn’t a perfect oval; it bends and twists, forcing the drivers to adapt to the track, and skillfully handle their car around the various turns to keep their cars hovering on the thread between safety and danger. Nascar is an endurance test; F1 racing is where the real skill lies. And where the real skill lies is with the drivers, and that is where this documentary squarely takes place; it is all about the life of one tragically influential driver, and the love of the sport that he embodied. Senna, by Asif Kapadia, seems to be the List’s newest attempt at including a modern day documentary among the field of recent list additions, apparently ignoring the fact they have yet to take the Anvil documentary off, but still; that’s the mindset I had going into my viewing of Senna. Coming out of it, I can see why they decided to add it, even temporarily, and even with the “modern documentary” slot already taken up; it is a fantastic and very moving film, and it’s one you certainly want to make sure other people go out of their way to see.
The film documents the life and career of Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna, from his transfer from go-kart racing to Formula One, to the crash that would take his life in 1994. Aside from voiceovers from the interviews conducted for the film, all the images are entirely archive footage, which adds an added dimensionality to the film that helps it very greatly. Right from the beginning, the main difference between Senna and your average documentary is readily apparent. The film absolutely swells with emotion; the opening credits alone give you a complete picture of the emotional journey you will be sent on by the following 100 minutes. From there, we follow Senna’s career from start to finish; very little of the documentary is outside the racing world that Senna inhabited, and that’s fine all the same – Senna himself makes it clear that he is all about racing. It is his connection to God, and at one point when another racer has a fatal crash on the track and his long-time doctor tries to convince him to retire, to quit, he simply says “I can’t quit.” He may have been single-minded, but he drove himself to be better every single step of the way, and most importantly, he did it for the love and the passion he had for the sport, and as I pointed out in the opener, this is much more a sport of skill than Nascar could ever hope to be, and Senna did nothing if not re-instill and confirm that belief in me.
While the ending is understandably tragic and mournful in mood, the film as a whole doesn’t linger on what happened to him; it is a celebration of his life, a perfect epitaph for what the man stood for, and how he lived. I want to emphasize the word “celebration” here; other documentaries about fallen idols either go the track of being purely documentative and presenting the timeline of their subject’s lives from start to finish, with no embellishment, or they focus too much on the tragic circumstances that either kill the person, or cause them to fall from grace, and the documentary, you can tell, is a lead up to the sad finale. Senna is neither of these things; when you watch it, you truly feel glad that this man lived, and that he was able to give such a positive spirit back to his native Brazil. It is not mournful, but cheerful, and it is damn near perfect the way it is. This is by far one of the best and most entertaining documentaries I have ever seen, and I highly recommend you give it a shot, even if you disdain racing as I generally do. It’s not about the racing, it’s about the man who races, for the thrill, for the skill, and for the chance to become one with God.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10