I’ve long been one of those people who think that the life of Ayrton Senna would make for a fantastic biopic. I’d love to see a proper Hollywood blockbuster about Formula One (and no, not Driven). What better story is there than the fascinating, tragic, almost unreal tale of the life and death of arguably the greatest, certainly the most charismatic racing driver there’s ever been?
Writer Manish Pandey and director Asif Kapadia evidently felt much the same way as me about the cinematic possibilities of Senna’s life story. But thankfully, they had a much better way of going about telling it. Because Senna is a remarkable piece of work, and despite being a documentary, it’s instantly and obviously a more compelling narrative than any dramatisation could possibly have been.
That’s not to say it isn’t cinematic, or even dramatic. Indeed, it features many of the story tropes you might have expected to see if Senna’s family had agreed to have a Hollywood screenwriter tell the story. It’s got its hero, dashing, dynamic, enigmatic and complex. It’s got a love interest. Not a blonde actress (although Brazilian megastar, Xuxa, linked with Ayrton for a while, does make a brief appearance), but the sport itself, and the hero’s fanatical devotion to it. It’s even got a proper baddie in the shape of former FIA president, Jean-Marie Balestre, a man so cartoonish in his villainy you suspect the makers of Wacky Races would have rejected him as too over-the-top.
It’s also got a narrative that opens and closes in a surprisingly circular fashion, and on an entirely unexpected note, at that. Again, the expectation would have been for the fateful weekend at Imola to dominate proceedings at both the beginning and end. But while it casts an inescapable shadow over the final act, there’s an altogether more down to earth, and touching motif touched upon as the credits begin to roll. It’s indicative of the sensitive touch that the makers have brought to the story, and of their flair for good drama.
Despite being ostensibly a documentary, Senna consciously betrays the fact that its director hasn’t worked in the genre before, and as a result, employs a number of unconventional storytelling devices that are all the better at telling this particular tale. Crucially, there are no to-camera interviews whatsoever, meaning that all contributions from people who were there at the time, even if recounted decades later, feel like immediate conversations in the middle of the action, particularly when Kapadia matches a voice to contemporary footage of the speaker.
This even occurs, impressively, quite often with Senna himself. Since no distinction is ever made between present-day and archive interview audio, the lead ‘character’ is a constant presence. This is no exercise in peering at the past from a distance. The story is as immediate and alive as if it were unfolding right before our eyes then and there.
All of this, of course, conspires to make the whole thing that bit more affecting and heartbreaking, even for those who’d consider themselves well hardened to the entire story.
Senna’s loss is so much more keenly felt when he’s been seen to be as vibrant and alive as in the film’s most joyous footage, whether that’s cutting through the Monaco rain in that beautiful yellow helmet, or enjoying downtime on the family boat in surprisingly candid home video footage. And as time draws on, it just feels downright unfair that the story’s heading the way it is.
As such, the first sweeping helicopter shot of the Imola circuit, with accompanying “May 1994” caption, leaves a lurching feeling in the stomach. And although the weekend is treated with the requisite amount of solemnity (and steers clear of showing any of the more ghoulish television footage that exists), it still has shocks of its own, most notably the clip of Senna actually seeing, and reacting to, Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal accident on a TV screen in the Williams garage.
All of these, naturally, are effects more likely to be felt by fans, those who know exactly which major story beats are coming. For them, another especially notable feature of the film will be what it chooses not to show.
In the interests of preserving a narrative along a particular theme, there’s simply not the space to include footage of many of Senna’s most memorable career moments. In particular, the years between his last title and his move to Williams are skimmed over in a matter of minutes, meaning there’s no space to show arguably his greatest performance, the opening lap of Donington 1993. Meanwhile, the quite astounding instance of him stopping his car to help the stricken Erik Comas out of his crashed Ligier is only placed, devoid of explanatory context, in the closing credits.
However, for all the well-known footage that the film doesn’t include, it does an especially good job of educating even the hardcore fan with new and exciting material. Aside from the aforementioned family video and extensive behind-the-scenes shots at Imola, perhaps the most enlightening, and entertaining scenes of the entire film come from the pre-race drivers’ briefings, in which Balestre holds court like an irate schoolmaster, while Senna plays the part of the disruptive pupil who nevertheless sort of has a point. Frankly, these sequences could make up the film’s entire running time and they’d still be fantastically entertaining.
What’s more, Pandera and Kapadia actually manage to find an emotional centrepiece to the story that isn’t one of the more famous and widely-discussed moments of Senna’s career. Rather than a championship win or an infamous collision, it’s the tale of his finally winning the Brazilian Grand Prix for the first time, in 1991.
In a wonderful sequence, Kapadia calls upon staggeringly close quarter footage recorded on a handheld camera by an opportunistic fan, as Senna literally collapses in the cockpit from the effort and emotion of winning his home race, despite having been unable to change out of sixth gear.
The event is set against the context of the country’s economic crisis of the time. The film is always at pains to make clear just how much Senna meant to the people of Brazil, far above simply being a racing driver, as well as allowing a rare glimpse of his father’s presence at his side during the races. What’s more, it’s a significant turning point in the film’s narrative. After the draining events of the previous three years battling with Alain Prost, which had turned Senna from a wide-eyed hopeful into a harsh and ruthless racer, all of a sudden there’s a welcome peace, serenity and maturity about him that, again, makes the inevitable outcome that bit harder to bear.
Of course, in order to succeed, the film needs to appeal to non-fans, as well. So captivating does it make its story, however, that it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t. Although it doesn’t share as many of the tools of the best modern documentaries as you might expect, something it does have in common with the likes of Anvil, Spellbound and The King Of Kong is that the quality of both its construction and the story it tells transcend any pre-existing interest in the subject matter.
After all, from a purely human point of view, this is a fascinating story told in an engaging and superbly constructed way. And even the slight shred of bias in favour of its subject, which could, perhaps, be said to create a slightly misleading picture of certain events for those not also aware of the wider facts, can be forgiven when you see just how easy it is to be drawn in by Senna’s unfathomable magnetism.
It’s entirely possible that a generation of moviegoers previously unfamiliar with him will go away eager to find out even more about him, and that’s a remarkable thing for the film to achieve. For those of us who already knew of him, though, there’s still plenty contained within to both educate and inspire, and to preserve, once and for all, the story of one of sporting history’s greatest figures.