Let’s start by saying that for the most part I loathe auto-racing. I don’t see any reason to give up three hours of my day to watch foreigners race around in a circle. Still, the racing scenes in Senna are somehow exciting. Senna is of course a documentary about the final part of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna’s career. Unlike most documentaries, there is no narrator, and the camera isn’t obsessed with friends and family and Formula One experts sitting in dark rooms being interviewed. In fact, I don’t think the camera ever cuts away from old archive footage. It is constructed mainly out of period interviews with Senna and his fellow drivers and also out of television coverage of the races. This is an unusual choice in documentary film and it works in the movie’s favor. Senna is a skillful picture: tightly edited, and perfectly paced such that we the audience are never taken out of the action. In fact, the picture often seems one step ahead of us, forcing us to run to catch up. The fast compilation of material makes the racing scenes feel faster and more exciting (something I never thought possible). Senna is one of the best films of the year.
I guess the movie covers approximately ten years of Ayrton Senna’s life. In that time he wins the Formula One World Championship three times. He befriends a rival driver who eventually becomes his enemy. He changes companies, he wins, he loses, he crashes, he becomes a superstar. The picture reminds me of a 1994 documentary called Hoop Dreams in which filmmakers and company recorded the lives of two inner-city students whose dream it was to play basketball. I recall that the characters in that film seemed so fleshed out and the plot so unpredictable that the picture could have been a fictionalized drama. Senna is much like this as well. Documentaries have a tendency to be stale and “facts-oriented”, which often results in the audience feeling distanced from the subjects. Like all the best documentaries, Senna places us right down in the action and we learn not only to observe the subject, but also to sympathize with him and root for him. Occasionally someone is heard on voice over: usually Ayrton’s sister or an ESPN commentator or a Formula One medic. They aren’t there simply to give information. They are never seen on camera at all. It is almost as if they too are the audience, and their comments are their thoughts about the movie.
If you are searching for a birth-to-death biography of Ayrton Senna, you will be sorely disappointed in this picture. It makes little attempt to discover who Senna was or what his upbringing was like or what kind of a person he was in real life. No, none of that matters. Just as Ayrton seems to have thought, all that matters is racing. Watching this picture, the only things you would be able to gather about his personal life are that he was from Brazil and that he loved the Lord. Other than that, the film is fully devoted to his racing career. If Ayrton has emotions, they are only about driving (at least as far as the film is concerned).
Historically I have been less than impressed with movies about auto-racing. The 1966 John Frankenheimer epic Grand Prix goes down in my mind as less than extraordinary. The Love Bug was cute, but all its subsequent Herbie sequels were pretty bad. I couldn’t tell you how much I disliked the half-hour I saw of Talladega Knights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. So obviously, something is different about this picture. Maybe it’s because it’s a documentary, or maybe it’s because of the aforementioned fast editing. The film is edited by Chris King who, along with the director, has sifted through potentially hundreds of hours archive footage to create this one hour and fifty minute long masterpiece. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be. The clips of the races themselves tend to be from television coverage and as such have the commentators narrating the action. Here we realize the internationality of the sport. Many of the commentators speak Portuguese, some speak Italian, others speak Japanese or English. Typically the filmmakers have chosen to show a win or an accident from the points of view of different linguistic groups, giving us a sense of the worldwide reaction to each incident.
I’m a bit of a misanthrope, and if I could I would sit in a theatre all by my lonesome. But, that’s not ever going to happen, so I make the most of it. One of the few helpful things about seeing a movie with an audience is that I like to gauge their reactions. The audience I saw Senna with was mostly over fifty, and If figured most of them are Formula One fans. I must say they were the most involved audience I’ve seen a picture with in a while. Most audiences sit silently in their seats with nary even a grunt or a gasp. This bunch laughed at the right moments, winced at the violent accidents, and gasped whenever one of those lightning fast cars went zipping perfectly around a corner. I don’t know if this is to the movie’s credit or whether it’s just the nature of the audience. I’m starting to think it’s the latter.
It’s very easy to get sucked into this picture. It takes a few minutes, and then we’re hooked. We rock in our seats when a car whirls around a corner and we lean forward in anticipation as the finish line comes close. I suppose if I, who can’t stand watching cars race, liked this picture it must be good. Come to think of it, I don’t like basketball either and Hoop Dreams was magnificent. What an odd phenomenon. Anyway, it seems as though this picture isn’t going to get a lot of recognition box-office wise. It probably won’t play in many theatres at all. Most people are going to miss it. However, if you live in a town where Senna is, you’re in for a treat. In the words of Bob the Tomato: “Have we got a show for you.”