Saturday, May 3, 2014

Senna Movie Review

If you go into the documentary Senna, about the late Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, directed by Asif Kapadia and written by Manish Pandey, with a blank slate as I did, you are likely to come away knowing more about this energetic and emotional young man than you could ever have learned from a book or series of articles about him.

The only thing I knew about Senna before was that he was from Brazil and that he died in the race car. I had no idea how old he was, how long he’d been racing before the accident, how many championships he’d won, or who his rivals were. Kapadia apparently did mountains of work combing through news and stock footage to be able to complete a total portrait of Senna’s Formula One career. He fills an hour and forty-five minutes of screen time without ever cutting away to a talking head. Every interviewed friend, family member, or colleague is presented in voiceover while we are treated to racing or practice footage, or those telltale ‘behind-the-scenes’ moments that reveal Senna’s emotions pre- or  post-race.

Because of this technique, Kapadia is able to paint a deeper and more fulfilling picture of his subject than perhaps other documentarians can do with theirs. And he weaves a strong narrative out f the material. To be sure, the narrative is constructed from actual life events, but all documentary filmmakers also make editorial decisions in service to the story they want to tell. This is not to say that they are spinning or inventing, but moments and events always have to be left out, timelines compacted, and others expanded in order to make a point. Nonetheless, the events of Senna’s life and career, particularly his final years, would be unbelievable if written as a Hollywood script.

It begins with his intense professional rivalry with champion driver Alain Prost as they compete year after year for the championship. When the victory comes down to a single race, a crash occurs during that race that insures victory for one with the slight hint that maybe something shady happened on the track. But then a suspension is handed down and emotions are heightened. And wouldn’t you believe it? The next year, at the same race, the same two men are in an identical situation with their respective roles reversed and the other comes out the victor after yet another crash. And you can look at the record books and see that this all played out as presented.

As if those dramatic turns and reversals weren’t enough, the days immediately preceding Senna’s fatal crash saw two terrible accidents, one also resulting in a death the day before his own. Kapadia’s narrative ties this series of accidents to the change in rules disallowing computerized control over certain systems in the car at the very moment when Senna had signed with Williams, whose cars were paving the way for computer control. With the change in rules, the cars had to overhauled, possibly resulting in the crashes.

Whether you’re a racing fan or not (and I’m far from it), Senna remains a compelling and emotional jolt of a movie. Kapadia’s use of stock footage extends to racing footage from both the TV cameras around the track as well as on-board cameras that take us right next to the driver’s seat. The result is some of the most thrilling action and drama in sports movie making.

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