It’s astonishing how few people watch documentaries, but it’s offensive how many refuse to. There are those who say documentaries are boring and preachy. They don’t want to look at talking heads and be told how to think. To those people, I say watch Senna. There isn’t a more exciting, action packed and, ultimately, heartbreaking movie to come out this year and, yes, it’s a documentary. We’ve all seen movies about greed, corruption and backstabbing, but not like this. This isn’t some fictional tale from the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter. It’s real and that makes it all the more enticing.
Senna is about the life of three time world champion, Brazilian Formula One racecar driver Ayrton Senna, largely considered one of the greatest racers to ever grace the track, and it follows his trials and tribulations that eventually led to his death in 1994. It’s a deep and personal look into his life, defining him as a man of convictions; in God, in family and in himself. It explores his personality traits as well, showing him as a humble and kindhearted, though imperfect and occasionally arrogant, man whose stubbornness eventually led to his demise.
Senna presents all this with a staggering amount of old footage. Every shot, except for perhaps the early title card sequence, comes from existing footage; there isn’t a talking head in sight. If not for the voiceovers, it would be easy to forget this is even a documentary. It certainly doesn’t feel like one. Unlike most documentaries, it doesn’t tell us his story. It shows it. You’ll get to see the emotion in his face and in those around him. You’ll realize when someone is keeping a secret and when someone is overwhelmed with sadness. The greatest actor in Hollywood can try, but will never be able to capture what you see here.
Even if you’re not a fan of racing, as is the case with myself, the politics of the sport will keep you enraptured. The corruption behind the scenes is despicable and thrilling at the same time. In one pivotal moment in the film, Senna is stripped of a championship after his one-time partner, Alain Prost, goes behind his back to those in charge. This leads to a dramatic rivalry between the two that spans years and gives us a glimpse into the dark side of Senna. In response, he sabotages Prost in the same race the very next year and, though it’s certainly not the right or noble thing to do, you understand why he does it and you get to see the unhappiness and guilt that follows his actions, giving him redemptive qualities.
Had that guilt not been so evident, his redemption would still be present in his love for his country and his (barely touched upon) charitable work. He was seen as a hero in Brazil, which was suffering through tough times, and his accomplishments meant more for his country than perhaps anybody, including Senna, could have realized. It wasn’t until his death that his importance was truly understood. The tears shed by Brazil’s citizens are evidence enough of that.
Senna sets up what seems like a traditional good guy, bad guy story—Senna is clearly the hero and Prost is his nemesis—but it doesn’t end with the defeat of the bad guy. Our hero dies instead, but there’s no celebrating of Senna’s death by Prost, only mourning. It’s at this moment you realize that, despite all of their flaws, there were no good people or bad people in the film; just people. It’s a very emotional finale, even if you’ve never heard of Ayrton Senna before now (which was the case for me before seeing the movie). Senna simultaneously weeps for a man that had so much more to accomplish and celebrates his life. It’s a must see.
Senna receives 4.5/5