Senna quickly launched a rivalry with French driver Alain Prost, who was considered a more strategic driver than Senna. The Brazilian's style was more daring and intuitive. The rivalry boiled over in 1988 and 1989, when Prost and Senna both raced for the McLaren racing team and jockeyed for first and second place at several Grand Prix races.
The film pays special attention to the end of the 1989 season, when Prost and Senna crashed in a turn at the Japanese Grand Prix. Senna finished the race, but lost the politics of the sport. Prost complained to the stewards and Formula 1's president, Jean-Marie Balestre, a Frenchman like Prost and Senna was disqualified, losing the championship and earning a six-month suspension.
Over the next five years, Senna overcame the backstage battles to establish himself as the greatest racer in the sport. He became a legend in Brazil, mobbed by adoring crowds wherever he went. Into the 1990s, though, he faced new challenges from technologically advanced cars and a growing sense that his luck on the track might run out.
Director Asif Kapadia (whose past films range from the Bollywood actioner "The Warrior" and the Sarah Michelle Gellar scare-'em-up "The Return") had tons of racing footage at his disposal, and he makes Senna's races as exciting as if they were happening live. He also employs some amazing inside footage of pre-race drivers' meetings, where we see Senna maturing from a hotshot kid to a thoughtful elder stateman among his fellow racers.
The movie also features extensive interviews with Senna's mother and sister, with fellow racers and race commentators but, smartly, those interviews are heard, without talking-head visuals interrupting the stunning race footage.
If there's a weakness to "Senna," it's that the racer's personal story is a bit sanitized, as his romantic history which were highlighted by relationships with the Brazilian children's star Xuxa and model Adriane Galisteu is fleetingly mentioned. The movie has the support of the Instituto Ayrton Senna, the children's charity established by Senna's sister Viviane, so some burnishing of the legend should be expected.
With its focus on the track and the personality one sport couldn't contain, "Senna" proves a good documentary can have as much drama, emotion and heart as a fictional narrative. Besides, you would be hard pressed to find an actor as charismatic as Senna himself.
The life of racer Ayrton Senna, the pride of Brazil and a demon behind the wheel, is chronicled in this dynamic documentary.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use.
Running time • 106 mins.