It’s 1994, the third race in the Formula One season, and Ayrton Senna holds the lead over Michael Schumacher going into lap 7 of the race. As Senna approaches the Tamburello corner, his car is moving at over 200mph. His car suddenly veers off course and hits the concrete wall surrounding the track. Despite the best efforts of the medical team, Senna is later pronounced dead at a hospital in Bologna.
Don’t worry. This isn’t a spoiler. This is the end of the sad tale of how one of the greatest drivers in motor racing made it all the way to the top, and died doing what he loved. Senna is the story Ayrton Senna and his rise through the ranks of Formula One. During this time he clashes, on and off the track, with rival driver Alain Prost, and with Jean-Marie Ballestre, the head of Formula One. He wins championships and becomes a national hero in his native Brazil. But by the age of 34 he is dead.
When Senna died, a three day period of national mourning was declared inBrazil.
Senna is made with the use of archive footage and Senna’s holiday videos. The usual talking head format is thrown out and we are told Senna’s story by the people who knew him best, entirely through voice-overs. If the film constantly cut to people as they talked about Ayrton, then we would be pulled straight out of the story. By not having any talking-heads we are left with the feeling of actually watching events as they unfold.
Senna and his Formula One rival, Prost
The film plays out more like a drama than a documentary. Senna’s clashes with Prost and Ballestre are enthralling. Ballestre clearly favours his fellow Frenchman, Prost, over the Brazilian Senna and if you are unaware of what will happen next in Senna’s relationship with these two men, then the film becomes all the more riveting.
It is when the action takes to the race track that things become really exciting. Throughout the film, in-car cameras are used to put us right in the driver’s seat. This adds an entirely new dimension to the film and subverts what we would normally expect from a documentary. These cameras show the cars hurtling down the track at unbelievable speeds. While watching things from the perspective of the driver, you are constantly waiting for something terrible to happen. This leads to the sort of tension you would not expect in a documentary.
The view from behind the wheel
Music also plays a big part in Senna. It is unusual for music to be so prominent and effective in this kind of film, but it works brilliantly. In fact, it is unusual for music to be such a remarkable part of a documentary film on a first viewing, but Senna is one such exception. From the opening stirring strings to the heart-thumping races, the music throughout compliments the entire film.
By the time Senna’s story is drawing to a close, you realise that over the course of the film you have begun to feel like you know him. You see not just what he was like as a racing driver, but as a person as well. There is a real emotional connection created with a man who died 18 years ago. This is the real triumph of Senna. You are supporting him the whole way, not because it’s his film, but because he was a good person, who also just happened to be an extraordinary racing driver.
On the surface, like Drive, Senna may appear to be about a man and his proficiency at controlling an automobile, but in fact it’s about so much more. If you don’t shed a tear by the time the credits roll, you may be dead. Or horrifically dehydrated.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever Senna wins a race.
Take a Drink: whenever Senna mentions God.
Take a Drink: whenever Senna is on a podium.
Down your Drink and sing along to the Brazilian anthem when Senna wins the Brazilian Grand Prix.