Length: 106 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Appropriate for: 13+. There are only a few instances of swearing, though they include a couple of frustrated f-bombs. The drivers are shown using sexual innuendo and general cheekiness to hit on ladies, who, rather quaintly, take to it like catnip. A couple of extended sequences filmed from the driver’s perspective might be a bit dizzying for some viewers. Finally, the film shows a few crashes and their aftermaths, some of which end with the bodies of drivers shaken violently about like helmeted, jumpsuited rag dolls—the effect is chilling and gut-wrenching every time.
A man who lived for first place is honored in a film that sometimes gets stuck in first gear.
By Jared Peterson
Senna, a somewhat anemic ESPN Films documentary about a famous race car driver, makes a valiant effort to honor its subject, but it ends up spinning its wheels, its power never quite translating to real momentum.
Ayrton Senna began his racing career as a very young man in his native Brazil on the professional go-kart circuit—something that apparently exists. After demonstrating preternatural instinct and skill on the track, he made his way quickly to the elite world of Formula 1 auto racing. It appears that soccer isn’t the only thing we Americans are missing out on, because in most parts of the world with excess gas to guzzle, folks love themselves some Formula 1. Now, forgive me for saying it, but this brand of racing has a thing or two on NASCAR, the first and foremost being its bold acceptance of, you know, right turns. F1 tracks wind in multiple directions, and each turn has a personality (and, in some cases, a name) all its own. Pleasingly, its cars feel more like toys than our homegrown stock machines, and their movements closer to the physics-defying scenarios played out across the beds and shag carpets of childhood. I dunno—maybe it’s just me. Anyway, over the next decade, Senna speeds toward, and then past, all his competitors, becoming a star of the sport and a bona fide international celebrity.
Behind-the-scenes footage and the voices of family, friends and fans combine to paint a picture of Senna as complex man with a singular purpose—to get there, fast. He clashes publicly with other racers—especially his sometime teammate and consistent foil, the French driver Alain Prost—and with Formula 1’s regulating officials, seeking fairness but also justification for his risky moves on the track. Confident and even arrogant, he is also kind and philanthropic. A demon on the tarmac, he was a deeply religious man who earnestly thanked God for his skill and success. And he embraced the fact that his mounting status could serve to enliven and revitalize the Brazilian people during a trying period of economic and social imbalance.
Ayrton Senna’s story is certainly an interesting and touching one, and there is value in telling it. Unfortunately, the film’s tone of awe and exaltation surpasses its ability to convey the nature of the sport and his talent. We’re not really encouraged to understand his greatness on our own, but rather to accept it from the start. Like many Americans, I suspect, I don’t know a ton about the intricacies of Formula 1 racing. The film assures me such intricacies exist but misses the opportunity to really teach me. Also alienating is director Asif Kapadia’s insistence on using only historical video. Eschewing the traditional talking-head format is a fine idea, but here it leaves the viewer anchorless, adrift in a grainy sea of archival and sportscast footage. A more consistent presence from the narrator (former sportscaster John Bisignano, never seen and too seldom heard) and a few well-designed graphics or animations would have welcomed us more warmly into the world of the sport that Senna mastered so completely.
In the end, Senna will appeal primarily to diehard F1 fans—especially those who followed the man’s career in real time in the ‘80s and ‘90s and who will likely be warmed by the nostalgia of its misty videotape texture. But, alas, the film seems destined to be relegated to the late-night wastes of ESPN’s stepchild networks.