Senna (Asif Kapadia, 2010) tells the story of Ayrton Senna’s racing career starting with his rise to fame in Formula 1 to his untimely death.
Senna jumps right into the story and keeps moving at a constant pace throughout this documentary. Kapadia draws on an amazing depth of archival footage to construct the narrative, including not only interviews and press conferences but also racing footage from television and on-car cameras. The racing footage itself is quite gripping, and the other footage aptly shows the tensions among the drivers, the teams, and the officials.
Kapadia makes an interesting choice in terms of bringing in talking heads. Instead of cutting away from the archival footage to someone sitting in an office or nice room, he includes them in voiceover only and identifies them by name on screen. This technique proves effective in this documentary in that it keeps us in the moment and it keeps the pace of the documentary moving. Talking heads are frequently the slowest part of a documentary after all.
The footage in the commentary shows a driver with a passion for the sport and a struggle to become part of Formula 1. Senna eventually goes on to win several world championships, but he is not without his rivals. He also is not without his controversies, including a six-month ban and $100,000 fine from one race. However, he did try to make the sport safer for all drivers.
Before Senna’s final race, a driver during the time trials crashes than leader dies. This man’s death, according to the voiceovers, made Senna nervous about the following race. The race itself begins with a small crash, and soon Senna takes the lead. The on-car camera shows us his perspective in the race as he zips around the corners. With a simple and sudden cut Karpadia moves us to a perspective outside the car, and we see it crash quite suddenly into wall. According to the doctor, the head injury was fatal. The on-car camera gives no indication that something is wrong, and only speculation follows with what actually happens.
Overall, I found Senna to be a well-done documentary that was engaging the watch even with the sad ending.