‘Senna’: He Could Dance a Dance with That Car

“May God always protect him from the danger he may face, that’s my greatest fear.” As she speaks, Neyde Senna da Silva looks both proud and nervous. At the time, in 1978, her son Ayrton is a rising star. He stands beside her in this archival footage, smiling slightly as his father Milton da Silva, hovers nearby.

This interview cuts to another, Ayrton Senna on his own, and contemplative. “Few people really do know myself,” he says. “They just really don’t understand what it takes from a racing driver, somebody that has left behind, thousands and thousands of miles away family and friends, to live in Europe, being so young. And always in a fighting way. Nothing has ever come easy.” A cut to yet another interview shows Senna looking a bit jauntier, standing before a dressing trailer. “I think God gave me this chance,” he asserts, “which I have been waiting for, for so long.”

That chance is to drive Formula One cars, which he began to do in 1984. Before then, the Brazilian-born Senna got his start in karting, at age 13, and then open-wheel racing, earning five championships in three years. After he turned to F1, he won 41 Grands Prix and a three World Championships. In a word, Senna was a phenomenon, and as such, he was filmed, interviewed, and photographed repeatedly throughout his career, images now assembled as the documentary Senna.

This structure lends Asif Kapadia’s film a particular sort of brilliance, a mix of then and now that’s both haunting and immediate. In part, this effect is a function of Senna’s own story: his life was famously cut short when in 1994, when his car crashed during Italy’s San Marino Grand Prix. But it’s also produced in the texture of the documentary, the grainy TV clips, the point-of-view driving shots, the footage of drivers, crewmembers, and journalists at work and on display. There’s not a moment of the film that feels staged, but of course, that’s the ingenious fiction of celebrity: by turns thoughtful and frustrated, generous and arrogant, Senna appears here always past and ever present, an image constructed out of dreams and needs, an image that’s simultaneously made up and sincere, abstract and irresistible, history and myth.

As Senna makes it complicated case about Senna, it doesn’t offer any more than the footage and the opinions. The Senna who lived off camera, apart from photos taken by his family or TV interviews, is not a factor here. You don’t learn much about his childhood, his siblings, his ex-wife (whom he married in Brazil as a young man and divorced before he started driving Formula One, the 15-year-old girlfriend (when he was 25), or the millions of dollars he contributed to poor children’s organizations in Brazil.

But as the film omits such private particulars, it does offer more than a few clips wherein Senna asserts his Catholic faith in God. These public declarations helped to create and sustain his legend: if some observers worry that he sees his talents and triumphs as god-given (see also: Tim Tebow), others see in his pronouncements a dangerous sense of fatedness. Following an early accident, Senna says, that even though he feels responsible for what happened (“I opened windows for mistakes”), he’s able to see beyond it. “Somehow,” he says “I got closer to God and that has been very important to me as a man.” And again, “I visualized God,” he says after he’s won 1988 Suzuka Grand Prix and World Championship, “I have it registered in my memory, it has become a part of me.”

His racing style is legendary, and turned poetic in some estimations. “There’s only one word that describes Ayrton’s style and that is fast,” says ESPN commentator John Bisignano as you watch frankly thrilling point of view footage from inside a car. “He would take the car beyond its designed capabilities. He would brake later, fly into these corners when the car was just over the edge, and somehow he could dance a dance with that car to where it stayed on the track.”

Other images suggest that Ayrton is occasionally less spiritual, and more conventionally competitive, and also that he understands and resents the politics that frame the sport he loves so much. Looking back on his first racing experiences, in karting, before Formula One, he tells an interviewer in 1978, “It was pure driving, pure racing. There wasn’t any politics involved in it, no money involved either. Like it was real racing.” Life in the show is increasingly complicated, as teams, cars, and finances shape starts and outcomes. If Senna is regularly touted as a gifted driver, it matters what kind of car he’s driving, who’s working on it, how advanced the technologies may be, and especially, where he’s positioned on the track and how judges assess penalties.

When he’s joined the McLaren team in 1988, he races alongside his teammate and greatest rival Alain Prost. For the next five years, the men vie for supremacy on the track and in self-imaging, not always managing their emotions for the cameras. “Everything went up,” says one observer of the sparring between Prost and Senna. “People talked about it because it was controversial, shocking, and fascinating.” As the competition boosts TV ratings and racetrack attendance, sells newspapers and sports shows, the two men are as spectacular as they need to be, gesticulating on the track and eventually parting ways professionally. (Prost went so far as to sign with a new team, Williams, with the condition they would never sign Senna.)

Senna’s own trajectory within the film is set, of course. And as Senna heads toward San Marino 1994, it focuses on images that show his anxiety, his restlessness, his responses to the two accidents that preceded his on the same track, during the same meet. Reginaldo Leme, commentator for Globo, says, ” I’d never seen Senna as tense as he was that weekend. I never saw him make a smile. He was constantly focused, annoyed saddened really.” As Leme remembers, you see footage that seems to confirm his version: Senna’s messing with his hair, he’s not smiling, he’s pulling his cap low over his eyes. “It’s the balance,” Senna tells a reporter who’s asked him about car troubles. “Changing the balance.”

Less celebratory than contemplative, more nuanced than definitive, Senna articulates the risks of racing alongside its potential for nearly ecstatic experiences. A heady mix of material, psychic, and emotional elements, the film still keeps focused on how that mix is created.

RATING 9 / 10