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Published on Mon, Jul 25, 2011
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
The film walked away with the World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. It also captured the Audience Award at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival. We are referring to perhaps the most acclaimed movie of the year, SENNA—the documentary film about arguably the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time, Ayrton Senna da Silva. Doug Stokes reports. A DOCUMENTARY FILM ABOUT AYRTON SENNA Da SILVA Directed by: Asif Kapadia Written by: Manish Pandley PG-13, 114 minutes New York/Los Angeles release date: August 12,2011 Review by Doug Stokes Even though we knew the ending fully seventeen years before we sat down in that screening room in Beverly Hills a few day ago, it was still a shock when it came. Somehow I had hoped that I had dreamt the reality and that the documentary we were watching so hard would some way have a different conclusion. That did not happen. However, what did happen was a brutally honest celebration of the latter part of the life of a true driving genius. Yes, this a racing documentary with screaming cars and crippling crashes, and close-ups of this man’s piercing eyes looking out from inside himself and seeing nothing but the finish line.
But SENNA is so much more than a racing documentary, and so beautifully constructed that it transcends the boundaries of just being a racing movie. Within the first few moments, this film becomes a compelling psychological drama which just happens to take place on high speed circuits in single-seat race cars spitting out 900 horsepower and showering the tracks with white-hot sparks from their titanium rubstrips. From happy beginnings in Karts, to the stupifyingly bitter politics of Formula 1, Senna’s path is clear and this very young man’s passion is viewed in full cry. This film works brilliantly on two distinct levels. One, if one had never even heard of Ayrton Senna da Silva, nor knew that he won the World Driving Championship three times, you would still be staggered by his rapid rise to the pinnacle motorsport and what that turbo-charged journey both won him and cost him. You’ll recognize the rock-star sort of sainthood he was simultaneously crowned and saddled with so very early in his life. For the fan, for the insiders, this film will take them deeper within the mind and motivation of its protagonist than they ever thought possible this long after his dumfounding death in 1994. For the keen observer, there are countless small points, each a critical part of the mosaic that this director builds, piece by piece, fact by fact, into a rendering of a life that had, perhaps, too sharp a focus. This smiling, sad-eyed youngster will simply not go slow for any reason. This is a deadly serious driver who will not let anything (or anyone) block his way to the win.
In racing, one often hear the drivers who ran second in a race refer to their finishing position as “first looser”. See this film and know how bitterly Ayrton Senna accepted anything but the outright win. The disdain on this young man’s face when he comes second to World Champion Alain Prost in a spectacular drive over the rain-slick streets of Monaco is so naked, so telling. There’s no sound, his lips are clenched tight, but you can just as well hear him say: “Okay, okay, I got the damn trophy from the old fat guy who was married to the American movie star … can I please get the hell out of here now?” Only when he leaves the palace steps and spies a congratulating friend does Senna gather it up and factor in getting a second place at Monaco in his first year in Formula One, allowing but half a smile to quickly flit across his face. This film document was painstaking culled from over 15,000 feet of film and video tape of the day. Nothing was recreated. There are no CGIs, nothing faked, shadowed, supposed, or superimposed. Every word of race coverage is from the day and (as you’ll doubtless recognize) that use of the real makes all the difference in the sense of immediacy which this film conveys. In SENNA, the cutting is both intelligent and so very deft as to be almost imperceptible. There are no heavy zooms, stupid jump-cuts, nor dramatic helicopter-pull-aways. I promise you, there is not one frame of clichéd camera work in the entire 104 minutes. This is the use of variously-gathered bits of newsfilm that is so lovingly sewn together that even the grainiest of blown up Super 8 footage is totally engrossing. Gritty as some of this film is, the effect of the way that the film record is used is uncompromisingly superb first frame to last. And the sound, understand please, this is Formula 1 not some sort of foppish sportscar rallye. The animal scream of these engines (for the most part so emasculated on television: “Okay, turn up the volume!” we’re implored at the start of a race by the announcers) cuts like a serrated knife and explains the ride and the rush, in a code that’s understood directly on a molecular level. Not just loud. Alive! There are insights and in-car sequences that blow anything seen recently on television or in movies right into the catchfence. Hark back to round steering wheels that were steering wheels (not minature electronic command posts), witness men once again shift gears with their right hand while trying to hold a car on line in a 180 miles-an-hour curve, and see suspension systems that actually work in these super-streamlined, feet-first-to-the-accident machines of only 15 or so years ago.
Perhaps the best part of this film is its utter and refreshing lack of any sort of superficial sentimentality. Honesty is the rule throughout. Sure, this is the story of a great racer gone far too soon. But it tells the story of this phoenix without ever weeping openly, without canonizing its subject, without painting him with any other than the shades that he had brought along himself. Happily, luckily, blessedly, we’re told (and I fully believe it) that the film’s director had never read a book about Senna, nor looked at any of the hundreds of websites that venerate his life and legend, nor ever even been much of a fan of motorsports prior to being brought on board to make a film about one of the most-adored figures in the sport, one who many millions believed somehow invulnerable. That fact, and the obvious dedication to telling the story without any renting of garments is what makes this special documentary so very telling. SENNA runs 104 minutes, that’s an hour and forty-four minutes which will forcibly re-forge one’s perspective about the whole reason that some men get into very fast cars and then simply will them to go faster than the designers, the technicians, the engineers, and, for a few fleeting seconds, faster than the immutable laws of nature allow. There was never anyone better at flirting with the darkness that lies just beyond than Ayrton Senna da Silva. No one can do it for long, but this guy surely did it best. Only hours after the experience is over was I able to dissect why this movie had such an impact on my psyche. I saw it with a room full of other folks who were all in some way connected to the sport. When the lights came up, we all seemed to finally exhale in unison, taking more than a few moments to NOT talk about what we had all just witnessed onscreen.