Empathy is the Strength of Formula One Racing Documentary “Senna”

Ayrton Senna navigated the racetracks of Formula One as Beethoven navigated the symphony. Born in São Paulo in 1960, Senna and his career racing Formula One is the subject of the Asif Kapadia documentary Senna. The film uses archival footage of Senna’s interviews, racing coverage (including on-car cameras), and voice-over interviews from his friends and family to document his ascent through the sport, culminating in multiple World Championships. The strength of Senna lay in its ability to transport the viewer into Ayrton’s head as we ride along with him at over 200 miles per hour. We feel his frustrations, experience his triumphs, and even see through his eyes during tense races. What emerges is a story exploring themes of the weight of immense ability and the inspiration that such ability can provide, all amid the backdrop of heart-stopping, tense racing action and political intrigue.

The film opens by introducing us to Ayrton’s affluent upbringing and initial interest in motorsports. Most of his formative years driving go carts and Formula Three are glossed over to deliver us at the beginning of his Formula One career, and this offers the first masterful work by Kapadia to welcome us into Senna’s skin. Racing in one of his first Formula One events in heavy rain, Senna was slowly climbing the ranks in the deluge as the leader’s pit crew was pleading for the race to be called off. As Senna closed the gap between him and first place, the officials caved and halted the race seconds before he overtook the leader. Sitting on my couch at home listening to these events from over thirty years ago, I began to feel rage at the injustice of this decision, and it would not be the last time this movie made me feel things. Kapadia uses this opportunity to demarcate a central tension in the story of Senna: Formula One racing is really two sports, racing and politics. Senna’s abilities in the racing half astound, but he is left wanting politically.

This distinction becomes clearer during the evolution of Senna’s feud with French driver Alain Prost. Despite racing as team mates for a year, Senna and Prost develop a harrowing rivalry during the mid eighties and beyond, and a great deal of intrigue and tension is derived from this relationship. Another enraging moment occurs during the ultimate Grand Prix in Japan in 1989 and Alain Prost was the chief actor in this incident, who is painted as manipulating the governing body into ruling in his favor on a key decision in the race. This particular sequence is one of the most powerful in the film, as it expertly mixes the drama on track with the personalities in the sport.

The political machinations of the profession racing circuit are viewed beside the political realities of Brazilian society. Senna’s success inspires national pride from fans throughout the country, but it is made clear that the natural beauty of Brazil and the majesty of its great cities coexist with immense poverty and crime. Hence, Senna is seen as a figure for the populace to rally behind, and he takes advantage of his fame to effect various charitable efforts, most of which are focused around helping disadvantaged children. His efforts on and off the track establish him as a larger-than-life figure, and the audience is forced to fall for him just as his countrymen have.

Kapadia’s storytelling propels the third act through a continuous, unspoken tension as the careers of Prost and Senna draw to an end amid technological advancements in the sport. Somehow, the director is able to make scenes from earlier in the film seem more dangerous and harrowing. Political decisions again interfere with Senna’s career, and we once again are encouraged to feel his frustration with authority. This, above all else, is the power of Kapadia’s documentary. He is able to weave the events of Senna’s life into an empathetic narrative where we elate with him, seethe on his behalf, and lament at his failings. This is an easy film to recommend, as it speaks to the audience thorough emotional resonance, which has absolutely nothing to do with driving a car around a race track. See this amazing piece of documentary film making, and prepare for Kapadia’s newest offering: Cannes favorite, Amy.

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