How to attractively and imaginatively convey basic information is a question documentarians too often ignore. Why bother with aesthetics when you can artlessly plop interviewees in front of a bland background and have them yammer away? To that end, Asif Sapadia’s Senna is something of a masterpiece, at least relatively speaking: It tells the story of late Brazilian Formula One legend Ayrton Senna without once cutting to talking heads. Occasionally someone will pipe up on the soundtrack to rattle off basic exposition, but even this is used sparingly.
Mostly Sapadia leans on the reams upon reams of archival material, telling the story with footage culled from TV, home movies and, most bracingly, cameras mounted inside automobiles as they hurtle around tracks, affording us the POV of some of the planet’s most perspicacious drivers. Apart from it being a refreshing change of pace, the lack of talking heads also means we’re never pulled out of the story, left free to immense ourselves in the world of ‘80s Formula One and its overgrown personalities.
Granted, auto racing, even the swanky international non-Nascar variety, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it doesn’t matter. Sapadia organizes his tale in the manner of great drama, making it palatable to those who’ve never heard of Senna or have no clue that he died in a spectacularly messy crash at all of 34. Senna’s career is largely told through his rivalry with Alain Prost, a dashing cad who flirted with television presenters and knew his way around the politics of the game. Senna, by contrast, was soft-spoken, obsessive and deeply Christian.
Sapadia respects his faith although doesn’t appear to share his extremes; At one point he inserts an interview with Prost, who points out that Senna’s faith was dangerous, as his belief that God would never let him die on the track led him to drive reckless and dangerously. When questioned about his beyond spotty safety record, Senna avoids answering with the skill of a Mitt Romney. It’s not a moment that would likely wind up in a docudrama version of his life, a sign that documentaries can be more enlightening and entertaining than their “fiction” equivalents. At least when done right.