Senna (2011) Short review (PG-13)

Senna is an intense and incredibly engaging documentary about Ayrton Senna, a champion Formula 1 driver. You may have been like me, and becuase you have no interest in racing,  you’ll think that you wouldn’t find the film interesting. Au contraire mon fraire. The film isn’t really about racing, so much as it is about the drive to win at the highest level and the flaws and demons that are almost inherent in those that achieve that level; the double edged sword.  The world of auto racing is filled with large egos and brash personalities. That’s where the contradiction comes in. Actually, that’s where a few contradictions come in.

Documentaries generally frame things how they want to, even if  you’re supposed to be seeing a story from an objective. The one thing that is clear about Senna was that he was an extremely charismatic guy. He had the ‘it’ factor that people talk about in sports, the dramatic flair to live inside big, dramatic moments. The film makes it obvious that not only was he a great driver, but he had what it takes in between his ears to understand the political side of auto racing even from a very young age. Much is talked about in the film  as to what racing teams look for in a driver: intelligence. Senna also had a great deal of humility, something that was unusual for his sport’s participants. That probably went a long way in explaining how  that even though he came from a very wealthy family, he was still much loved as being ‘down with the people’.

One of the best aspects of the film is depicting the rivalry between himself and the French driver Prost was an established champion when Senna bursts onto the racing scene, getting a second place finish right out of the box with an inferior car. When Senna is hired onto the racing team, you can literally see the uneasiness that Prost feels. The film whether intentionally or not, develops the two men as almost mirrors of one another.

The film wouldn’t work, however, without the film capturing the speed and danger involved in auto racing and it does that to a ‘T’. The viewer really gets a great sense of that, with the way many of the races are depicted, especially when the camera is placed at the driver’s point of view (typical of most network racing broadcasts). The cars rattle. Vibrate. Jolt. The scenery in the periphery is a streaming blur. You get a strong indication that any error made by the driver could send the car airborne in one of those horrifyingly spectacular crashes. And that’s the point the film drives home, that all of these men are acutely aware of the risk of moving in these metal constructions at such ridiculous speeds, yet they continue to climb back into their cars and tempt fate again. They’re reminded of it in almost every race. It’s no small miracle when the drivers walk away unscathed when their car has disintegrated around them after colliding with a barrier wall (especially in the era Senna was racing in).

It’s easy to see why Senna was much loved in his home country of Brazil, having an enormous amount of charisma, deep religious convictions and handling the political side of racing (and public speaking) very well. He wore his emotions on his sleeve, at times. You can see how driven he is at being racing’s best driver (although maybe not why). His bigger fallacies were evident in his almost wreckless style of racing. This is one the best films I saw from 2011 (I know… release dates in different countries make the release year a little confusing sometimes). The events shown are put together so as to provide a sweeping overview of Senna’s life in racing almost from the beginning to the end. It’s worth seeing even if you’re not a racing fan (which I’m not). Great examination of a part of an extraordinary life and it made my Top 10 Films of 2011 list.

5 of 5

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