Director: Asif Kapadia.
I love those ESPN documentaries I see on TV sometimes. Even when they’re not about a subject I’m particularly fascinated in, they normally draw me in because they are well made and intelligent. I mention this off the top of my review for Senna, because for all the acclaim it has received this year, it reminded me of those ESPN documentaries. There’s nothing really wrong with that, and the film is fascinating in and of itself, but at the same time, I’m not quite sure why people think it’s one of the year’s very best documentaries. It does what it does just fine – but so do all those ESPN films.
The film is about Ayrton Senna, who many consider to be the best F1 driver in history. He won the world championship in his sport three times, held the record for years for most pole positions, and was utterly fearless on the track. His rivalry with sometime teammate Alain Prost was great for the sport, as everyone loves rivalries, and helped bring it to new heights. Two years in a row – 1989 and 1990 – the World Championship was decided by a crash between these two warriors at the last race of the season, with each driver taking one – and of course, with each driver blaming the other for the collisions. In 1994, while leading the San Marino Grand Prix, Senna lost control of his car and crashed into the barrier and was killed. He is, to this point, the last driver to die while racing in the F1 series.
Senna was a fascinating character. Some think of him as fearless, some reckless. When you watch his fatal accident – which is shown here, and will likely make you want to turn away – you can see why. He doesn’t get involved in an accident with another car – just simply loses control and crashes. He had a lead at the time, and conditions were excellent and clear. Why would he drive like that?
The film is thrilling in its racing scenes, as only good car racing can be. Most fictional films about the sport never capture it the way it is in reality, and they are poorer for it. The interviews with Senna and those that knew him paint a complex picture of the man – he could be caring and thoughtful, certainly had faith in God, and was fiercely patriotic to his native Brazil. He could also be ruthless and reckless on the track. He wanted to win – but more than that, he seems to have wanted to destroy everyone else. That is why he was so good at what he did.
The film is well made by Asif Kapadia, who assembles the footage in an expert fashion. And it drew me in, despite the fact I don’t really like car racing. And yet, watching it on DVD, I could never escape the feeling that the film should have just been another ESPN special. It’s well made, and for fans of the sport, a must see. And when you come across the film on TV in the future (and you will – ESPN was one of the companies who funded it), you’ll likely enjoy it. But is it one of the great sports documentaries of all time, like some have claimed? Not even close.