I love the kind of documentary or based-on-a-true story films that involve huge stories that just happen to exist outside of your knowledge, like Man on a Wire or Dear Zachary or Heavenly Creatures or even The Fighter, where you watch the movie thinking, “How have I NEVER heard about this? What? This happened? In real life?” There’s an entire world of events that live in our periphery, and one of the great wonders of cinema is its ability to bring these stories into focus.
The reason I — and probably most of you — have never heard of Ayrton Senna is because he was a Brazilian Formula One race car driver. Yeah, I know. You’ve already checked out. Seventy-five percent of our readers probably saw the headline, thought for a second about clicking, and then saw the header photo and moved on. I would’ve too had I not heard so many fantastic things about Senna coming out of Sundance, where it won the World Cinema Audience Award in the documentary category. Still, how good could it really be to someone that has zero interest in Formula One?
Really good, it turns out.
A good story is a good story, no matter what the subject. Senna is a great story that just happens to be about a race car driver, about the career of Ayrton Senna, who began in 1978 as a professional go-cart driver before rising to the level of a three-time World Champion and the man many consider the greatest Formula One driver of all time.
So what, right? If you’re like me, you’re probably still thinking, “I don’t care how good he was. It’s still a movie about a dude who races a car in a circle. Fuck that.” You’re right, but director Asif Kapadia does a couple of exceptional things with Senna that makes it well worth your time: He edits Senna’s career into a conventional three-act narrative — origins, rivalry, fall — and he takes a novel approach to the documentary format. It’s entirely made up of archival footage. There are no talking heads; there is no voice-over narration. We watch this man’s life unfold by witnessing the events as they happened and the interviews with the racers and family members involved at the time. It adds a layer of intimacy that most documentaries lack.
So, when someone dies in a car accident, for instance, you don’t get the perspective of someone sharing their feelings after the fact, you see the instant and pained reactions of the drivers who saw it happen, and you check their faces for signs of betrayal, of relief perhaps that a competitor or a rival will no longer stand in his way. There are a few deaths in Senna, too, and they make one wonder why so many people are fascinated with race-car crashes when the deaths themselves are so haunting. I’ve seen thousands of fictionalized onscreen deaths, but to see it for real is powerful, the way a man can be driving along full of life and … boom: A twisted, limp body lying on a race track. To see a person’s life force empty his body is profoundly affecting, even on a screen.
I still wouldn’t consider Formula One racing an interesting sport, but by focusing on the real-life drama, the intense rivalry, the backroom politics, the life-and-death stakes of those races, and the effect they had on the people of Brazil, Kapadia manages to relate the themes and ideas to anyone that has an interest in compelling stories about remarkable people. Not that Senna was a particularly compelling person in the humanitarian sense, but he is a fascinating person for how he approached racing. He was an aggressive driver, a man who often put winning ahead of his own safety and that of the other drivers, so sure of himself that his ability and his religion would save him from disaster. He took losses hard, and even when he was winning, he rarely looked exuberant. There was something sad and foreboding about Senna, and even if you aren’t familiar with the story of his life, you’ll feel an ominous sense of what is coming. Even still, when it happens, it doesn’t make that ache in the pit of your stomach any less gnawing.
I challenge you to seek it out — playing on a theater near you — if only so that you, too, can experience the frustration of trying to explain to someone else how great a documentary about a race car driver can be.