Asif Kapadia’s Senna would be merely another in a long line of tragic-athlete documentaries were it not for the director’s compelling approach, which involves using only archival clips from the life of its subject—three-time Formula One world champion racer Ayrton Senna—and narrating his tale through overlaid interview snippets from Senna and those who knew him. The effect of this style, in which our proximity to Senna via news and home-movie footage is uninterrupted by cutaways to talking-head chitchat, is that it imbues Senna’s rather straightforward and well-known saga with striking intimacy. Blessed with an abundance of material with which to work, Kapadia provides only brief upbringing background before picking up with the Brazilian Senna as he embarks—after a brief stint kart racing in Europe—on an F1 career, which quickly pitted him directly against his McLaren teammate and world champ Alain Proust. Their relationship would soon devolve into a bitter rivalry fraught with accusations of backroom politicking, racing-system manipulation, and on-track strategic sabotage, and though Senna makes clear whose side of this battle it’s on (a position furthered by its focus on Senna’s piousness and integrity), the film admirably refuses to shy away from differing viewpoints.
Even for those unfamiliar with Senna’s story, interviews in which the personable driver ruminates on mortality, the way racing brings him closer to God, and the danger of his profession all make plain his ultimate fate. But while death is an ever-present specter destined to command center-screen, the film nonetheless fixates so closely on Senna as he overcomes numerous obstacles on his way to triumph—being cheated out of the 1989 championship because of a ridiculous letter-of-the-law ruling, being questioned by other legends as a dirty racer, and being forced to contend with de facto villain Prost’s unsportsmanlike ruthlessness—that the familiarity of its underlying concerns proves secondary to the emotional connection with Senna it elicits.
Far more than its portrait of sports scheming or the way Senna became a national icon of hope and “joy” for his hardship-wracked Brazilian homeland, Senna is a stirring snapshot of a charismatic, immensely talented man driven to be the best, even if the risks of chasing such success were fatal. Highlighted by static-y first-person racing footage (including those of his final moments) that almost seems like light-speed transmissions from another world, and culminating with a funeral in which cross-cutting manipulatively, if effectively, conveys the many lives Senna touched, Kapadia’s doc is ultimately less affecting and insightful on a universal thematic scale than on an individual, personal one.