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MOVIE REVIEW: Senna

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Ayrton Senna lived fast and died hard. As one of the premiere Formula One racecar drivers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Senna took plenty of risks both on and off the track, becoming a controversial figure in the international sports world and a national hero in his home country of Brazil. Senna’s passion for what ESPN analyst John Bisignamo describes as “pure driving”, a racing experience without the influence of money or ideology, often clashed with crippling politics and bureaucracy of the sport. As a result, Senna often challenged Formula One’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), in devastatingly public disputes that fascinated fans and laypersons everywhere. Eventually, these emotional and ideological car wrecks took more of a toll on Senna than the races themselves.

Senna, Asif Kapadia’s enthralling found-footage documentary, charts Senna’s storied trajectory from young go-kart maverick to dominant Formula One speed racer. Made up entirely of archival clippings, including news coverage, interviews, and home movies, Senna seamlessly merges its subject’s public pursuits of speed, fair game, and victory with a more internal examination of the conflicted and frustrated man behind the breath guard. Voice-over narration from some of Senna’s closest friends and family, including his sister Vivianne Senna, McClaren Racing Manager Ron Dennis, and the aforementioned Bisignamo, plays over the footage and aesthetically links the public sphere to Senna’s private life. Still, without the voice of Senna himself, who died tragically in a racecar accident in 1994, Kapadia’s film becomes more a hazy memoriam than documentary, a pristine and smooth attempt to resurrect a historical perspective that has long been buried.

Senna’s tumultuous professional relationship with fellow driver and once teammate, Alain Prost, plays a pivotal role in establishing the film’s key themes of competition, resentment, and jealousy. Kapadia hints at how Formula One benefited from this feud, as television ratings and popularity grew after each controversial headline and in-race crash. But Senna is just as much about nationalism as it is about racing, specifically what Senna meant to Brazil as an impoverished country desperate for public pride. “He is the only good thing about Brazil,” confesses one Brazilian bystander during a victory parade for the driver. The aura of Senna transcends the actual statistics or facts about his country’s destitution, and the film successfully recreates an alternate version of his public myth. This is documentary as poetry, and the result is often riveting.

Senna’s barrage of gripping racing footage, driver-cam perspectives, and bursting sound design cementsthe film's mood over analysis approach. If the near overwhelming confluence of style and substance defined Senna the man, it certainly defines Senna the film, and Kapadia puts the viewer inside Senna’s cockpit for minutes at a time, careening around corner after corner until we are lulled into his heightened headspace. During these daring moments we begin to appreciate Senna’s masterful ability; his magnified tunnel vision that is as perfectly cinematic as it is dangerous.

Ultimately, Senna has the tough task of contextualizing its subject’s very public death on April 29, 1994, without minimizing the complexities of his life. And the dramatic climax does feels far too fated for my taste, labeling Senna as a martyr while villainizing the corrupt Formula One brass for ignoring mechanical failures and depending on changing technology to breed more competition. But it’s hard to deny the lingering sense of massive loss in the hearts of sporting fans around the world, and their pain becomes the viewer's. At times charismatic, nostalgic, and earnest to a fault, Senna creates a wonderfully vibrant cinematic facsimile of its subject, allowing Senna the conflicted sports hero to stand in for whatever masked ambiguities defined the man himself.

- Senna opens August 26, 2011 at the Landmark Hillcrest in San Diego