A high octane thrill ride through the career of a legend
A significant number of people have never heard of Ayrton Senna. Even those with little to no interest in their respective sports have an understanding of sporting legends such as Michael Jordan or Pele, however Ayrton Senna is arguably as great a talent as these comparable figures and certainly had led a much more dramatic life than these contemporaries. Senna paints an exhilarating portrait of the prodigious Formula one driver, one which visualises his immense skill and theatrical life on and off the track.
The film follows Ayrton’s career in a fairly linear fashion, beginning with his early outings as a teenager in Karting and Formula three, before his first season in Formula one driving for Toleman (using a car which put him at a significant disadvantage to the other drivers) and finally on to the the most fruitful portion of his career and his sudden death. Despite disadvantages early in his career, Senna quickly attracts attention with his clearly prolific driving and very nearly takes an astounding victory over the reigning champion Alain Prost, but is stopped short when Prost uses his connections with the FIA president to have the race stopped early for safety reasons. This act of artifice from Prost sets the tone for a longstanding competition he and Senna will continue over the course of their careers, and foreshadows the hardships which Ayrton battles with to succeed in the sport.
The entire film proceeds with a certain and sensational narrative, events occur with the flair and conception of an overblown sports movie. Senna is an underdog, a novice with an undeniable talent, forcing victory in the face of adversity, overcoming the politics of the sport off the track as well as vehicular malfunctions and the sabotage of other drivers on it. A handful of the feats shown in the film include; Senna’s first victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix, during which he has to battle a car stuck in sixth gear while in first place with seven laps to the finish (described by mechanics in the narration simply as “impossible”); upon succeeding in the aforementioned race collapsing from stress and elation; stalling at the start line during the crucial 1988 Japanese Grand Prix – falling to 14th place only to fight on and reclaim a podium place. He even has a long-standing and bitter rivalry with his co-driver Alain Prost, the animosity between the two often resulting in crashes and feuds with the corrupt FIA president Jean Marie Balestre, who favours fellow Frenchman Prost and uses his influence to handicap Senna frequently.
Despite the outrageous events taking place, the film lends them a tangible credulity through the exclusive use of period footage and the choice to never break from that footage. Similar documentary’s usually cut away to a vapid soundstage to allow a talking head to warble on about the subject in question, but Senna focuses on the archival footage of the track or elsewhere while those close to Senna himself provide narration. It’s an excellent stylistic choice which gives the film an immersive and authentic feel which never becomes staid.
Likewise, the film lays a clear separation between portions concerning Ayrton’s personal life – in which he was kind, religious and patriotic – and those during his racing career which immediately settle on the anxiety and grandeur of the race. During the races themselves, video from the cockpit of Senna’s car is often used – and this is always a spectacular sensual treat. During these moments the true talent and ferocious driving of Senna become clear, and from somewhere very close to a first person perspective, it’s easy to become enraptured in the spectacle as well as empathise for the kind of pressure that living at this speed would exercise on a psyche.
As Senna’s final race plays out, we again enter the cockpit view, but now the time is interminable. Seconds stretch into minutes, there is no narration, there are no cuts. We are subjected to an unflinching account of Senna’s last minutes until the inevitable denouement. The moment is extremely well handled, paying the appropriate respect and giving the tragedy greater weight.
As a character study, Senna is overtly idealistic. It is unquestionable that Ayrton Senna was an extremely generous and magnanimous individual, he was lauded in his native Brasil, not only for his success but for his philanthropy and attempts to improve the lives of the poorer citizens of his nation. On the track however, the central paradox of his being is obvious. Despite his kind nature in his personal life, during races he frequently endangered himself and other drivers. He also endangered his own life on occasion by running onto the track to aid drivers who had crashed, something the film ignores entirely. No real attempt is made to ratify these conflicting sides of Ayrton Senna, but this is a defensible creative choice rather than a signifier of ineptitude. To properly address this issue would require heavy handed discussion, which does not fit with the films style or motivation. This is a monument to the greatness of one man, not an incisive defamation of his entire personality. The only true issue is that it cannot be ignored entirely, raising the concept in the minds of the audience but giving too little information to draw a full and considered conclusion from this film alone.
Despite these minor shortcomings, Senna depicts a portrait of a phenomenal talent, under appreciated by the general public either through disinterest in Formula one or an indefensible lack of heralding in the media. From start to finish, we are shown an impressive overview of an astounding career tragically cut short, and the true inner generosity of a man operating well outwith the limits of his peers. Neophytes in the racing world and longtime Senna fans alike will be enthralled. The driving is brusque, the narrative sentimental and engaging – Senna is an unmissable experience, just be careful on the drive home.