As documentaries go, Senna may be best characterized as unabashedly partisan. From the moment the film begins, director Asif Kapadia clearly wants us to come to root for Ayrton Senna, the eponymous and deceased Brazilian Formula One racer. Kapadia’s concerned little and less with objectivity. He’s an admirer, and largely his film rides on the hope that his admiration shines through enough to convince us of his perspective. In this regard, Senna is successful to an extent; it’s easy to see how and why anyone might come to count themselves as a fan of the film’s subject. But for all of Kapadia’s tactics of persuasion, his documentary lacks all of the elements necessary to connect his audiences to Senna’s story and fully express why any of this should really matter to us.
It should be noted quickly that Senna‘s thoroughly researched and painstakingly made. In this area, one can take very little away from Kapadia, who has done an exhaustive history of the beloved racer’s life and accomplishments on the racetrack and created an effectively illuminating textbook about the recent history and the political mores of Formula One racing. Anybody who wants to know more about the sport should turn to this film straight away; considering the film’s relative brevity in light of the span of time it covers, it’s packed with information. Viewed through that lens, Senna works. Speaking to the eponymous driver’s achievements, no stone is left unturned; anyone walking away from the film will have a strong working knowledge of global single-seater racing.
What they won’t know much about is Senna himself, and that is where the film stumbles. On the surface, it’s not hard to feel a sense of elation seeing this man succeed as he does in race after race, despite both the obstacles put in his path by FISA and the machinations of rival racer Alain Prost. Everyone likes an underdog, after all, and for a large chunk of the film Senna’s just the little guy trying to win against the whims of the established ruling body of the game. For as long as the film treats Senna as the David to Prost’s and FISA head Jean-Marie Balestre’s two-headed Goliath, there’s something with which for us to sustain a meaningful, if still loose, connection. Once Senna becomes, well, Senna, and once his star takes off, it’s anchors aweigh; the film moves, but we lose our tether to it, and as a result the experience becomes educational rather than moving.
Rooting for someone you know next to nothing about is challenging. It’s not that Senna views Ayrton as a cipher; we’re given little pieces of his life as a person in conjunction with the much vaster history of his Formula One career. We meet his family and some of his friends, we learn that Ayrton comes from a well-off family, and we learn that he has an intense passion for racing and a deep-rooted sense of spirituality. We never really learn the “why” of either, though, and so Ayrton remains vaguely defined as a religious man who feels he must drive because he must drive. That’s not particularly compelling, and while it doesn’t detract from Senna’s contributions to the world it certainly makes Kapadia’s narrative something of a slog.
The experience is frustrating. Kapadia primarily focuses on covering the man’s life and times as a racer and examining his influence on that particular cultural sphere. Time spent with admirers feels cursory, as though the director knew he had to include it but didn’t feel particularly motivated to go any further into the impact Senna’s amazing story had on the rest of the world, specifically his home country. When the world weeps over his tragic death, the effect is perfunctory; our bond to him as a character and a person isn’t particularly strong, and we’ve only been given the faintest idea of how he affected the lives of his fellow Brazilians. This is puzzling to me since the film clearly reveals that Senna meant something huge to people across the world– and in many cases it’s easy to hazard a guess as to what his success symbolized to many– but Kapadia almost entirely sidesteps that conversation to move on to the next big race.
Ultimately the issue facing Senna is a matter of having too much of one element and too little of another. Could the film have succeeded by only portraying his attainment of trophies and accolades? Would it have worked if Kapadia had downplayed the material and examined in greater depth what Senna meant to his fans and to his loved ones? Maybe the only thing that matters is that we never fully get to know Ayrton Senna beyond his victories and his battles with Formula One politicking. Speaking strictly to matters of craft, Senna is well enough made, but it fails to adequately emotionally invest in its subject, creating distance instead of proximity to Ayrton and preventing the film’s inspirational qualities from having their full effect.