By on July 21, 2011

I was just a pre-licensed car nut when the July 1994 issue of Car and Driver passed along the news of Ayrton Senna’s death. Brock Yates’ column in that issue said, “In a sad way, Ayrton Senna’s death dignifies motor racing…He did not die in vain, but rather he made the ultimate sacrifice in seeking his own personally mandated pinnacle of achievement. Tragically, ironically, he may serve his chosen profession more in death than life.” This meant nothing to me at the time. But it means something now.

Fresh from the Audience Award for Best Documentary (World Cinema) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is director Asif Kapadia’s Senna. Senna differs most notably from most docs in that there are no cutaway interviews–i.e., no talking heads that are a staple of the genre. Footage gathered from 15,000 hours of film, video, and YouTube (much of it from Formula 1’s closely guarded film archive) immerses the viewer in Senna’s late-80s, early-90s life of racing in the prestigious, political and pretentious world of Formula 1 racing.

Much has been made about Senna’s hard racing, but this film presents the softer side of Senna. We see him with his family. We see him charming television reporters. We see him helping underprivileged children. In fact, the portrayal of his relationship with rival Prost makes Senna out to be the guy who just wants to win, while Prost revels in the glitz, politics and good ol’ boys club atmosphere fostered by F1 officials. The Senna we see is quiet, studious, upstanding and spiritual.

The real treat for the audience is the access to Ecclestone’s vast library of film and video from years of Formula 1 activity. The pre-race driver’s meetings, tête-à-têtes with Ron Dennis and Frank Williams and catty interactions with Alain Prost are all there in their intimate glory. The exchanges with FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre expose the politics and egos of the sport. During the pre-race meeting before the 1991 German Grand Prix, Senna and Balestre butt heads over tires lining a chicane. When a desperate Balestre, losing the room, angrily presents the opportunity for a vote, Senna’s side wins. With the proletariat drivers rising up against the Balestre Bourgeoisie, it’s an “enemy’s enemy is my friend” dichotomy–and it’s riveting.

Another gem is Senna and McLaren boss Ron Dennis discussing how to handle the split before Senna races his last race with the team. Dennis says that he wants an amicable and professional split. Senna agrees and offers that he would have done it even without mention. Eagle-eyed hindsight lets the audience know that this is one of their final conversations. The F1 camera crew really pulled a CBS-not-1984-Big Brother act and gave us a moment better than any teary camera confessional. You can see the respect that these two professionals have for each other, knowing an era is over but not that it would be one of their last conversations together.

One the downside, the opportunity to use the F1 footage is the great strength and the great weakness. I want to see Ron Dennis recalling conversations with Senna. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the voiceover is just the mailbox. We miss so much not hearing from Senna’s sister Viviane, friend and F1 doctor “Professor” Sid Watkins, Dennis, Williams and even Prost. We miss their faces tell us about the man they remember, loved, hated, respected, cheered and/or cheated. It was a conscious choice by director Kapadia to rely solely on the footage, so he deserves credit for trying something new. Whatever; just sayin’.

Any racing fan owes himself the chance to experience Senna’s career through the eyes of the world he lived in. The people that have been paying attention to Senna are not necessarily racing fans, though. I’ve been to the Sundance Festival a couple of times, and if the snooty, Hollywood Prius-driving greenies can love a movie like Senna, then more than a few of the Best and Brightest should, too.

Senna is out in limited release August 12; wider release starting August 19. A screener copy of the film was provided for this review.

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16 Comments on “Movie Review: Senna...”

  • avatar

    Nice review. Looks like an amazing film of a compelling story.
    The archival fatal crash footage of Senna that was offered up after the trailer on YouTube seems rather benign. Shows the illusory effects created by physics, speed, space and camera. The crash footage reminded me of seeing, on live TV at the time, the images of Dale Earnhardt crashing into the wall at the high bank in Daytona. Physics makes us a very frail species, indeed.

  • avatar

    Speaking of Ayrton Senna, my librarian mother put in my hands a book called The Art of Racing in the Rain, not really about Senna, but the story of a dog who’s a Senna fan, along with his semi-pro race driver owner. Wonderful, wonderful book. Can’t recommend enough for dog lovers, family men, or well, anyone.

  • avatar

    I had a pleasure of watching this movie, it’s a great documentary.I would highly recommend it to any F1 buff. And to me Senna will always be the greatest driver, no matter how many Alonsos, Schumahers and Hamiltons will be in F1 after his death. It’s great to see that money and fame did not change Ayrton, how much he has done for Brazil and that he was a bigger men then his arch rival Alain Prost.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. Best of all time. No doubt about it. Was robbed of his 7th Monoco victory, just as he was robbed of at least one WDC. Even if he only won one or two WDC, he would still be the greatest just due to the sheer brilliance he showed behind the wheel.

  • avatar

    Watch the theatrical cut. THEN watch the extended director’s cut. It doesn’t have the same flow, but it has lots of talking-head interviews that go into a great deal of detail that is lacking in the cut down version. If you are a die-hard fan the extended cut is a must – but casual viewers will get bored and find the poor editing annoying.

    • 0 avatar

      Aha! That explains it! The version I watched had plenty of talking heads, including the Brazilian TV commentators. They give a lot of interesting information. I specially enjoyed the interviews with Prost.

  • avatar

    I’m confused – is this the same documentary as this link?

    I could have swore this was already out and available to the public.

  • avatar

    Thanks — Interesting review, but why do you have to undermine everything you’ve written with the statement about ‘the snooty, Hollywood Prius-driving greenies’….?

    • 0 avatar
      Matthew Sullivan

      Hollywood Prius-driving greenies presumably have built-in biases against religious fanatics who think God smiles upon their dangerous, win-at-all-costs driving. So if those Hollywood types can get all misty-eyed at a movie about such a dangerous fanatic, it must be a very powerful movie indeed.

  • avatar


    I believe it was released in Europe earlier this year. The US theatrical release is August 12th in New York and LA.


    I write that flippantly; people in “Hollywood” aren’t typically auto enthusiasts.

  • avatar

    I am a bit confused and not sure if this is the same documentary I saw earlier this year (Senna – beyond the speed of sound,

    I thought the movie had at least 4-5 “narrators”, including Prost, telling the story of Senna as they saw it. Yet the author criticizes the lack of interviews?

    Maybe he meant he wanted to see more interviews with more people. For example, the first-to-the-scene doctor was not interviewed about the actual crash; We only see archival footage of him interacting with Senna in a previous accident with no serious injury, where Senna jokes around with him about a possible future accident… Eerie in hindsight

    • 0 avatar

      yes, it’s the same one you saw. it was released in Japan last fall as well as Brazil. it has not had a US theatrical release yet, as noted in the story. I’ve seen the theatrical release and am interested to see the longer version, editing be damned. it’s really, really, really good.

  • avatar

    Awesome doc, and highly recommended. It paints Senna, perhaps, in TOO positive a light, though. I suppose if it’s going to focus on Senna, it should, but it really paints Prost as the bad guy, which is completely unfair.

    Prost hated the politics of F1 but did a good job of playing the game ANYWAY. He was never more than a mild acquaintance of Belestre, and didn’t like much how Belestre ran things… Belestre though, was a big Prost fan because he was French of course. So it was never a big conspiracy against Senna, despite what he thought. Belestre was an ass though.

    I suggest reading the book “Senna vs Prost” by Malcolm Folley. It tells a much more balanced story.

    • 0 avatar

      Excellent points Tiger. You and Matthew offer a bit more realistic understand of what Senna was, and wasn’t. Why have a book reviewer cover a book on a man he has no knowledge of? Odd editorial decision.

  • avatar

    Top Gear did a segment on Senna in season 16 (or was it 15). I’m looking forward to this film but as with all film I will wait for it on Netflix

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