Senna is a racing documentary that takes us into the jittery, jumpy, nerve-wracking driver's seat of Formula One race cars of the 1980s and '90s. More interestingly, it gives us access to the sometimes acrimonious drivers' meetings of the day, when track officials and the sport's imperious rulers fielded and often brushed off testy, emotional questions from the drivers.
No, NASCAR coverage on TV never looks like this.
The film captures a bitter rivalry between two of its stars, a rivalry that sometimes involved very NASCAR-like behavior: guys running into each other, taking them out of a race.
At its center is the famed Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna. This ESPN/Universal documentary lets him come off as a sensitive, sometimes prickly and always competitive soul.
Senna makes a fascinating subject in a pretty entertaining film about a sport that isn't followed that closely by most Americans. But our very ignorance of that subject helps the film and adds to its impact. We don't know this story by heart.
A child of wealth and privilege, Senna rose from go-cart racer to Formula One hero in short order, a brilliant driver who became a national hero in Brazil. We follow his career from those early days, when he took slow cars and drove them with such skill and aggression that he made them competitive, to his years at the pinnacle of the sport — models and TV stars on his arm, vast crowds of fans wherever he took off his helmet.
The documentary gets down and dirty with Senna's growing rivalry with French Formula One champ Alain Prost, who comes off as just as competitive and temperamental as Senna but with a sneaky streak as well. They quickly journey from teammates to foes to "war," and they dominated their sport in the '90s. Their conflict creates the money moments in Senna, as they duel in cars by Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus.
For all the fascinating behind-the-scenes footage, the snippets of press conferences, home movies and races and the candid moments when this spiritual man who wore his Christianity on his sleeve would lose his cool, it's not a particularly intimate portrait.
We see only a hint of the wealth Senna came from and the wealth he attained. We see how even poor Brazilians embraced this child of privilege. But we don't get to know what made him tick, what made him so skilled at handling cars at high speed, so daring that he was always a threat to win on a rainy day. Handsome and articulate in several languages, he is a remote figure in documentarian Asif Kapadia's entertaining film.
At least the conflict works. Senna and Prost managed one of the great blood feuds in all of motor sports, and they weren't shy about showing their disdain, on and off the track. There's also heartbreaking footage of drivers in accidents, a crumpled body on the track here and there.
That gives Senna its drama. And Senna, who died in a crash in 1994, gives it its heart. I just wish I'd gotten a better handle on who he was.