Senna Dir. Asif Kapadia

[Working Title; 2011]

Styles: sports doc
Others: various ESPN profiles, Le Mans, A Man and a Woman

“Ali Jordan Pele Senna” is the tagline running the length of the Senna poster at my local art-plex. One of these players doesn’t seem to belong. While Senna is certainly a streamlined, top-gear documentary that avoids major head injuries and bone-breaking collisions, it fails to accomplish one very essential task: convincing its audience that its subject is worth watching. Senna assumes that an American audience will have no problem placing Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna in the same mythic league as the two biggest athletes in American history and the only soccer star to have any major name recognition in the US. Apparently, millions outside of the US do prop Senna up around the level that Americans place Ali. But I’ve never heard of him before, and I’d be willing to bet any American who isn’t an extremely dedicated sports geek would say the same thing.

I realize that I’m being nationalistic when I complain that Senna isn’t tailored to an American audience — in many cases, it is entirely unfair to castigate a movie for not kowtowing to American audiences (though lord knows our movies regularly bend over backwards to secure foreign box office). But the facts bare themselves: Formula One is as popular as soccer in most non-US countries, but like soccer, Americans don’t follow it. So if you’re wide-releasing a movie about a foreign megastar in a country that is largely ignorant of him, it’s the job of your movie to make a case for his importance. Senna assumes the case is already settled.

Although these are fatal flaws to an uninitiated audience member like me, they’re only tangentially related to the actual film, which is pretty good. Based on shots of enormous crowds cheering him on, I can glean the kind of superstar Senna was in the Formula One world: he commanded crowds of thousands at his Brazilian public appearances, dated models, and generally acted the part of an international playboy. But based on shots of Brazilians crying after he was killed in a race in 1994, I get a hint of what it meant to Senna’s poverty-stricken country of birth to have a superstar as a native. He was apparently at the level of fame in Brazil that Princess Di once occupied in Britain. And since director Asif Kapadia manipulates footage to make it look like the entire sport — not least then-president Jean-Marie Balestre and fellow racer Alain Prost — was aligned against Senna, I get some idea of the twisted politics endemic to Formula One.

Were I previously excited about the sport, or if the doc had the decency to try to convey to non-fans the impact of Formula One, I might consider Senna top-notch hero worship and a fully-dressed portrait of an important figure. But instead I left it with the feeling that nothing I’d seen would have been out of place in an hour-long ESPN special made by a sports journalist. Except that journalist, ideally, would have contextualized Senna’s importance and borne out the ballsy claim made on the poster.

Most Read