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.
In tracing the brief and brilliant career of the late Brazilian auto racing star Ayrton Senna, Kapadia relies entirely on archival footage, some of which has never been seen before and much of which comes from inside the vehicle Senna himself is driving. This is from the late '80s and early '90s, long before the advent of contemporary NASCAR television coverage, with its multiple cameras capturing images from every possible angle. It's raw and rough, and the signal goes in and out, which actually makes it even more of a visceral, immersive experience.
Senna himself, though, was all about glamorous good looks and smooth, instinctive action.
Kapadia follows the decade from when he first bursts onto the Formula 1 scene in 1984 at the Monaco Grand Prix and ends the film with the stunning crash that kills him at age 34. During that period, he achieves thrilling, come-from-behind victories, overtakes competitors in the slimmest of spaces and makes a name for himself by driving even better than usual in slick, rainy conditions. He becomes a three-time world champion and an icon back home at a time when his country badly needs a source of pride and inspiration.
But he also becomes known by fans around the globe for his bitter rivalry with his one-time teammate, French driver Alain Prost, winner of four world championships. Fans of other sports will recognize this awkward dynamic, whether it's between Shaq and Kobe or Jeter and A-Rod: the need to project an image of unity despite a steadily building animosity behind the scenes. Interviews with insiders and reporters who covered the sport then - which are presented in voiceover form and not as traditional talking heads - provide insight while maintaining a sense of cinematic intimacy.
Despite some ugliness on the track, Senna remains deeply spiritual, and devotes time away from racing to raising money for children's charities. From everything we see here, he was an all-around decent guy: a young man who was born to wealth but wasn't an elitist, an athlete blessed with confidence, brains and extraordinary talent and never plagued by self-destructive tendencies. "Senna" doesn't completely deify him, but it does present him in a positive light nearly all the time. And it would have been helpful to get a better sense of his personal life beyond fleeting glances of the gorgeous women he dated. We know this much: He liked blondes.
If there's a villain here, it's Prost, or perhaps Prost's fellow Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre, the head of Formula 1 racing who seemed to have it in for Senna. Why? That's a topic of speculation.
Digging a little deeper and showing us what really made Senna tick could have turned a good documentary into a great one.
The Universal Pictures and Producers Distribution Agency release is rated PG-13 for some strong language and disturbing images. Running time: 104 minutes.