"Perhaps you have no interest in Formula One racing... [This shouldn't] keep you from seeing Asif Kapadia’s Senna, a marvel of a movie that has at its center the very thing one longs for and seldom finds on screen today: a brilliant, charismatic, romantic hero."
-Amy Taubin, ArtForum
"Asif Kapadia’s documentary... should reward the attention even of those who would never dream of watching cars on a track..."
Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
"You don't have to know a thing about Formula 1 racing to become engrossed by Senna. That's because director Asif Kapadia has structured his documentary with the pacing, tone and fluidity of a feature film."
-Christy Lemire, the Associated Press
-"Audiences don’t need to be familiar with or give a damn about Formula One racing to get drawn into Senna..."
-Alison Willmore, the AV Club
-"Even if you couldn’t give two crank shafts about motor racing, Senna’s life remains a remarkable one and this film is a punchy, good-looking and clever tribute that should have an appeal far beyond a petrolhead crowd."
Dave Calhoun, Time Out London
-"It's not that hard to understand why sporting events often produce such terrific documentaries, even if you're not all that interested in the sport in question... I promise: You don't have to know or care anything about Formula One auto racing, or ever have heard of the legendary Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, to become fully drawn into this film's universe."
-Andrew O'Hehir, Salon
"Like almost every American critic, it seems, I don't follow Formula One and was totally unfamiliar with Senna, which made the bulk of the film as gripping as a fictional narrative..."
Ha, "it seems." Good one, bud. This last review gets at something that's been nagging me about one of the year's biggest critical and commercial documentary successes, specifically how gripping the fictional narrative is.
Now, like so, so many of my colleagues, I am not a fan of auto racing—though I was hardly surprised to find myself caught up in the competition of dashing young men driving fast through the rain-slick streets of Monaco. Yes, it's a great story, as the stories of tragic, driven sports heroes so often are. But watching the film, I could sense the ways in which Kapadia was assembling footage to sell me a bill of goods. I'm hardly the most sophisticated moviegoer out there, and I'm honestly surprised this wasn't a more frequent reaction.
Some reviewers have wished for more context even as they allowed themselves to be swept away. And indeed Senna's distaste for Formula One's "politics," as recalled by many interview subjects, is brought up mostly as a way to build up Senna's purist outsider mythology—it's understood that there's a lot we F1 virgins are being asked to take on faith, without any deeper understanding of what F1 politics even are, beyond vaguely suggestive footage of F1's French president being all buddy-buddy with the French driver Alain Prost, Senna's great rival.
Late in the film, Senna switches teams, to a motorsports group that's been ahead of the rest of F1 with computerized suspension, leaving him in the dust in the prime of his career; just after he switches, F1 levels the playing field by banning computer suspensions. (How doubly unfair, right?) As Senna struggles to adjust to his new team and new car, we're told he suspected other teams of illegally using the computer suspension, and the claim is left hanging there, unconnected to anything shown on screen. (Cursory post-viewing research suggests there was nothing to it.) So it's not, at this point, merely a matter of us not knowing enough about F1 to fully appreciate the nuances of politics and engineering and money being related here—it's a matter of us being seasoned enough documentary viewers, at least in theory, that we ought to recognize when a filmmaker is gilding the lily with unsubstantiated claims, and streamlining some diffuse stuff into a nice storyline. (Though the film is presented chronologically, there's also at least one extended interview that's obviously cut up and distributed across the emotional arc of the film.)
In general, the populist emotional hook versus wonky explanation is a problem facing many activist documentaries; the hope is that viewers will be moved enough to do their own research afterwards. The TV highlight-reel package is a great well to sell your story. And in that vein, Senna is exemplary documentary: seamlessly assembled from archival footage, much of it previously unseen and all of it gorgeously textured 80s and 90s racing, TV, home-movie footage, it attractively packages a story that's inherently compelling to newcomers, and will thrill anew anyone who already knows it by heart.
So I don't mean to be a pedantic killjoy here, but it bugs me when documentaries do stuff like this. I think of sportswriters like Joe Posnanski, who demonstrates the ways in which unruly data points can tell stories just as compelling as any Matt Christopher book, and I know it doesn't have to be this way. Maybe if more film critics knew anything about F1, they'd feel more confident calling bullshit.