Come for the Racing Highlights, Stay for the Outtakes: Senna

by |
08/10/2011 4:00 AM |


Directed by Asif Kapadia

Hoo boy is this a documentary made with the full consent and participation of the subject’s family-run charitable foundation. Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One champion of the late 80s and early 90s, was a racing driver’s racing driver, winning pole positions and excelling in the rain, but viewers of Senna will mostly have to take it on faith: director Asif Kapadia’s assemblage of tenderly disposed interviewees over archival footage leaves the viewer to untangle F1 racing strategies; diehards will be equally displeased by the vague and one-sided allusions to the sports “politics,” as governance-by-fiat and the machinations of corporate sponsors and automakers are here deployed as obstacles to be overcome by Senna, whose temper and complicated personal life are also soft-pedaled in favor of his bland but genuine Catholic faith and altruism. (The sooner documentary filmmakers recognize that audience members can check the wikipedia app on their smartphones mid-movie, the better.

Much of the archival footage comes from ESPN, in its early days of blocky yellow title fonts and cheaply imported niche sports, and like the network’s recent 30 for 30 documentaries—two of which, The Two Escobars and June 17, 1994, also hinge on infamous and spectacular sporting events from spring and summer of ’94—Senna is a simplified highlight-reel edit that’s valuable anyway, as a document dump. The archival footage here is marvelous: not just recorded-live racing footage and Sporscenter spots but also pit-area outtakes, driver meetings, press conferences and talk shows, home movies (obviously spliced in for convenience more than chronology), and Brazilian TV specials, all in alternately saturated and washed-out color and TV-textured grain. It’s a dual history of sport and the media culture surrounding it; it’s just a shame that hagiography was the trove’s cover charge.

Opens August 12