Sports have a great deal in common with food and fashion in that for all of the competitions and yearly trends, they’re never complete– there exists in each a perpetual cycle of players entering and exiting, records being broken, and rules themselves changing over time. However, within individual sports there are always leaders winning the most games or garnering the most fans and generally providing the face of their respective competitions. Very occasionally however, there comes a player that seems not just to win individual games or championships or even seasons, but instead seem to be winning at the sport itself. Names like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Muhammed Ali not only bring excitement to fans, but they draw in new eyes as everyone loves to feel like they’re watching a demigod write a definitive chapter in history.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Aryton Senna was that kind of demigod in the Forumla 1 racing world, and the ESPN documentary that bears his name does a remarkable job of recapturing the worldwide zeitgeist surrounding Senna at his peak, showing exactly why he became one of the biggest sports stars in history. A masterclass in editing, pacing, and storytelling, Senna is a triumph of a documentary that will bring even the most racing-adverse non-fans into the fold and instill in them an understanding of the exhilaration of F1 racing, and the impact of a figure like Senna within it. This is the story of a real life Speed Racer– a man who was so profoundly talented behind the wheel that even the shameless roadblocks of sport politics could not hold him back. Senna’s story is filled with equal parts triumph and tragedy but it is the kind of classic story that, despite the esoteric backdrop of world championship auto racing, unfolds with the same kind of inevitability as the most ancient of stories.
From the first sequences the filmmakers behind Senna make brilliant choices that push the film past being a standard sports documentary and into being one of the best films of the year. At the film’s start we witness a race (early in Senna’s career) in which he performs almost impossible feats in an F1 vehicle, in the rain. This is no mere victory, as we see right from the start that Aryton Senna possesses some kind of supernatural gift for auto racing that goes beyond simply winning a race. This is a driver that finishes races having lapped virtually every other competitor, or wins with unprecedented margins amidst conditions in which few other drivers can even finish. As the story progresses further and Senna’s numbers and triumphs are brought closer to earth by changing times and technology, you never forget that, all things being equal, Senna is an unparalleled genius behind the wheel.
From there the nitty gritty story of Senna unfolds, and we see get the background of a privileged Brazilian kid who sets his sights on racing, and from his first go-kart championships is showing supernatural talent. He rises quickly through the Formula 1 ranks until he is winning races and joining major teams, meanwhile a poverty-stricken Brasil is enthusiastically latching on to him as a savior of national pride. Soon Senna is on a team with Alain Prost, presented here as a cocky world champion who goes to some pretty nasty lengths to push back the upstart. Their relationship soon sours and much of the film’s conflict comes from controversies between the two as they both win several World Championships over the years. Senna is portrayed as a naive, often impetuous man who has no interest in cow-towing to officials or politicians, a skill which Prost possesses and turns to his advantage.
The film lays out this narrative of a struggling new racer well, and then follows it even better with the story of Senna as champion. It wasn’t long after Senna took over the racing world that new auto technologies began taking some of the skill out of the race and handing it to computers, and as Senna struggles to stay on top in a racing landscape that is deprioritizing raw driving talent, the film only gets more interesting. Here we see Senna at his most imperfect, paranoid to the point of becoming a Prost-like figure himself by suspecting others of cheating and making excuses for his slipping record. Ultimately the balance Senna finds through his faith and national identity are presented as barriers to him “turning to the dark side,” and ultimately his incredible skills keep him at the top.
This is not a story with a happy ending, but the structure of the doc does a fine job of reflecting the tragedy at the end with what came before in the story. Most importantly it is able to pay off a consistent but subtle thoroughline of film that gives us routine looks at the squalor of Brazil, and how its inhabitants view Senna as man representing hope for an entire country. Even as we see him grin at thousands of screaming Japanese women in a foreign country that has made him a superstar, we know his heart and mind are with Brasil, its children, and his family. That he did not simply donate millions of dollars to the cause of improving children’s lives, but actively invested them in a foundation of his own creation is the definitive statement.
What makes Senna such an exciting film is that for all of its deft handling of history and character, it’s also just plain fun and exhilarating to watch. Television race footage is cut with a cinematic eye that perfectly captures the thrill of Formula 1 racing– perhaps the fastest and loudest sport in the world. More than once the film holds for extended periods of time on Senna’s in-car camera, which sucks you into the fury of this competition while conveying the instinctual skill and reckless abandon with which Senna was navigating these twists and turns. If Senna is your first look at an F1 race, it’s not likely to be your last.
An incredible documentary and a great film by any standard, Senna is every bit the illuminating and edifying experience an educational film should be, but it’s also a blast to watch. It strikes every emotional cord, mixes thrills with tears, and is definitely one of the best films of the year. Ultimately though, the greatest triumph of Senna is definitively proving that Aryton Senna was more than worthy of a documentary as good as this.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars