As sports documentaries go, this ESPN-produced biography of Ayrton Senna, three-time Formula One racing champion, is excellent, though in a fairly conventional way. Director Asif Kapadia, writer Manish Pandey and editors Gregors Sall and Chris King have apparently culled through every bit of archival footage and audio interview available about their subject, selected wisely from it, assembled it into a crisp, clear whole and added the sparsest narration needed to tie it all together. “Senna” is a solid survey of the racer’s life from his childhood enthusiasm for go-carts to his death in a crash during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
But while it will certainly be sufficient to sate the curiosity of car-racing fans and the Brazilians who still idolize their local hero (and who are repeatedly shown singing his praises while he lives, and eventually mourning at his funeral), one can imagine a deeper portrait than this one. Senna is described, for instance, as a child of privilege in a society marked by the most extreme divergence between the few ultra-rich and the vast majority of brutally poor. But though we frequently see members of his family (often in home movies of them sailing) and hear comments from them (and are told of Ayrton’s generosity to the less fortunate, especially children), we never really learn about the source of their wealth. Exploring how he was able, from a very early age, to give himself over to the sport he loved would have given the picture a more powerful subtext by the contrasting him with the hordes of impoverished souls who adored him.
The film also touches on the politics of Formula One racing in terms of Senna’s rivalry with racer Alain Prost, including actions taken by the organization, then headed by Jean-Marie Balestre, that seemed calculated to assist the once-dominant French driver against the challenge that Ayrton posed. The suggestion of corruption is repeatedly put forward, but it’s never investigated as fully as one would like. The arrogant, imperious Belestre certainly looks villainous enough in the footage, but more information on him would have strengthened the David-and-Goliath stance that Kapadia and his cohorts are making about Senna standing up to an entrenched power structure. The treatment of Prost is better, though, showing his prickly, competitive nature but also his attitude toward a rival he might not like, and for whom he came to have a grudging respect.
Another missing element in the film is a serious consideration of Ayrton’s religiosity. He spoke of his faith, even of feeling God in the car with him as he raced down the track—and there’s reference to a Biblical verse that he read shortly before his last race that could be understood in various ways but, in hindsight, takes on a fatalistic meaning. But what belief system Senna embraced is never explicitly mentioned, and doing so would have deepened our understanding of him (as would also have a fuller treatment of his romantic relationships).
But though one might wish that Kapadia’s film had dealt more substantially with other facets of Ayrton’s life and the wider context of the sport, it certainly covers his racing career as well as you could hope for. And on those terms “Senna” is a first-rate documentary.