“Once you experience it, you keep searching for it again.”
Like an addict searching for their next high, Formula One racing can cause such an adrenaline rush that it is too intoxicating to ignore. Though I consider myself to be amongst the causal racing fans, I knew from early age that it took a special kind of person to be a race car driver. It takes a lot of passion, and a certain amount of crazy, to risk one’s life on a weekly basis in a sport where one mistake can be the difference between life and death.
This passion is eloquently conveyed in Asif Kapadia’s exhilarating and heartbreaking documentary, Senna. While I had a basic understanding of Ayrton Senna’s importance going into the film, my introduction to the world of Formula One began shortly after Senna’s tragic passing. I had started to follow racing during Michael Schumacher’s reign of Formula One in the 1990s and early 2000s and therefore never fully grasped what Ayrton Senna did for the sport. Fortunately, Kapadia’s film not only provides insight into Senna’s life, but also manages to capture the thrill of car racing unlike any other film.
One of the reasons that Senna resonated so well with me is that it plays like a blockbuster despite being a personal story. We see the rise of the hero, the young and daring Senna, as he consistently defies both the odds and Mother Nature on the race track. The emergence of this young Brazilian driver causes tension with the former stud of the circuit, Alain Prost, who just happens to be working for the same team as the beloved hero. As a rivalry between Senna and Prost grows, the emergence of a more powerful villain than Prost arrives in the form of the head of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body of motorsports worldwide. Sound exciting? Hollywood could not have written a better premise.
While it may seem like I am over dramatizing the story, the fact of the matter is I am actually underselling how gripping this film is. Thanks in part to the interviews and archival footage that Kapadia amasses, Senna makes us truly feel like with are walking in Ayrton Senna’s shoes during both his highs and lows. The in car footage really conveys the sense of speed and adrenaline that comes with every turn. All of this helps to not only emphasize the good versus evil aspects in the film, but the humane sections as well.
The life of Ayrton Senna may have ended at the young age of 34, but he achieved so much in that short span. Senna shows how one man became not only an international racing star, but also the pride of a nation in desperate need of something good in their lives. What I really appreciated about Kapadia’s approach to the film was how he gives substantial weight to Senna’s humanitarian side. The film is not afraid to touch on the hardships and poverty that was striking Brazil. As one female fan points out, Senna was viewed as the only good thing to come out of the country at that time. He was a symbol of hope and strength.
Of course his heroics in the Formula One car also helped to enhance the almost mythic level that Senna reached in the eyes of his fans. His ability to push the car and himself, both physically and mentally, to the limit is simply inspiring. Even in the face of technical problems, he found ways to win races in the most jaw-dropping fashion. It is sad that, as with most things in life, inner politics ultimately played a role in several of the low points in Senna’s career. Watching the film only reminds us all of how senseless his death really was. Despite the sad and abrupt end to his life, the legacy of Ayrton Senna will live on for years to come. Easily one of the best films made in the last decade, Senna is a film that demands to be watched and cherished. It is a film that feels as large and as humble as the man whose life it depicts.