In a world full of 30 for 30 documentaries directed by Hollywood brass, Senna is a unique and superb departure from the norm. Gone is the usual presence of off-screen narration and present-day interviews on a past subject; instead, director Asif Kapadia roots through what was surely hours and hours of content to create real drama.
Senna—distributed in the U.S. by Working Title Films, Producers Distribution Agency and ESPN—focuses on the career of Formula One legend and Brazilian hero Ayrton Senna, a three-time World Champion who died at the age of 34 via a violent crash while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
The film begins with a rookie Senna competing in a non-competitive car in the 1985 Monaco Grand Prix—the crown jewel of Formula One. The youngster takes advantage of the slow pace created by rainy conditions, rising to second place and closing on leader Alain Prost before a questionable complaint by Prost eventually shortens the race. While the eventual 1985 World Champion proved victorious, it was Senna who reached his first podium and the hearts of many F1 fans.
It is this Senna-Prost rivalry that Kapadia really allows to shine; even while the two legends team up at Honda Marlboro McLaren for the 1988 and 1989 seasons, there is a clear mutual dislike and respect between the two men. For the sake of not giving away too much, let's just say Prost pulls something off that would be considered villainous in a work of fiction.
From there, the documentary covers Senna's 1990 and 1991 World Championship seasons, including his 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix victory (a win at his home event) in a goosebump-inducing manner. Kapadia's use of radio communication between Senna and McLaren team principal Ron Dennis through these moments is outstanding, indicating that the two were great friends as well as co-workers.
Dennis joins American, British and Brazilian journalists of the day in providing eyewitness accounts of what is often being shown on screen. It's not a narration, per se, but rather an enhancement for novices who know little about the sport.
While Senna skims through the advent of technology taking over driving ability with the rise of Williams' computer-assisted steering in 1992 and 1993, the focus of the final half of the film's is the fateful weekend in Imola, Spain where the production's namesake loses his life.
Few remember that Rubens Barrichello narrowly survived a violent crash on the course in practice two days prior to race, while Roland Ratzenberger was killed in a wreck a day before the Grand Prix. Both of those incidents are shown here in great detail—neither are for the squeamish.
Kapadia's real achievement is the way in which Senna's final moments are depicted. Senna is seen viewing the Ratzenberger crash, and it is speculated that the faithful man had his reservations about starting the race. The rest is history, a moment few would like to remember.
At 102 minutes, Senna is a tidy, superb look at the man's life. There are a few holes left uncovered, however; Senna's secret philanthropy, speculated to be worth a vast majority of his $400 million personal estate, goes almost without mention.
Senna is now showing in limited release throughout the nation, but ESPN's involvement seems to suggest that a television premiere could come shortly after the film's run in theaters ends. Either way, it is well worth going out of your way to check out—whether you're an auto racing buff or simply a fan of great documentaries.
Senna is directed by Asif Kapadia, a production of Midfield Films and Working Title Films (along with ESPN Films in the United States) and distributed by Universal Pictures and Producers Distribution Agency. The U.S. version of the film clocks in at 102 minutes and is now in select theaters. Senna is rated PG-13 for "strong language and disturbing images."
This is a first-run review with a copy of the film provided by Producers Distribution Agency.