Movie Review: “Senna”

“Senna” is a racing documentary that takes us into the jittery, jumpy, nerve-wracking driver’s seat of Formula 1 race cars of the 1980s and 90s. More interestingly, it gives us access to the sometimes acrimonious driver’s meetings of the day, when track officials and the sport’s imperious rulers fielded and often brushed off testy, emotional questions from the drivers.

No, NASCAR coverage on TV never looks like this.

The film captures a bitter rivalry between two of its stars, a rivalry that sometimes involved very NASCAR-like behavior — guys running into each other, taking them out of a race.

And at its center is the famed Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna. This ESPN/Universal documentary lets him come off as a sensitive, but sometimes prickly and always very competitive soul.”Senna” makes a fascinating subject in a pretty entertaining film about a sport that isn’t followed that closely by most Americans.  But our very ignorance of that subject helps the film and adds to its impact. We don’t know this story by heart.

A child of wealth and privilege, Senna rose from go cart racing to Formula 1 hero in very short order, a brilliant driver who became a national hero in Brazil. We follow his career from those early days, when he took slow cars and drove them with such skill and aggression that he made them competitive, to his years at the pinnacle of the sport — models and TV stars on his arm, vast crowds of fans wherever he took off his helmet.

The documentary gets down and dirty with Senna’s growing rivalry with the French Formula 1 champ Alain Prost, who here comes off as just as competitive and temperamental as Senna, but with a sneaky streak as well. They journey from teammates to foes to “war” in fairly short order, and dominated their sport in the ’90s. Their conflict creates the money moments in “Senna,” as they duel in cars by Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus.

But for all the fascinating behind-the-scenes footage, the snippets of press conferences, home movies and races and the candid moments when this spiritual man who wore his Christianity on his sleeve would lose his cool, it’s not a particularly intimate portrait.

We see only a hint of the wealth he came from and the wealth he attained. We see how even poor Brazilians embraced this child of privilege. But don’t get to know what made him tick, what made him so skilled at handling cars at high speeds, so daring that he was always a threat to win on a rainy day. Handsome, articulate in several languages, he remains a remote figure in documentarian Asif Kapadia’s entertaining film.

At least the conflict works. Senna and Prost managed one of the great bloodfeuds in all of motorsport, and weren’t shy about showing their disdain, on and off the track. There’s also heartbreaking footage of drivers in accidents, a crumpled body on the track here and there.

That gives “Senna,” opening Friday at The Enzian, its drama. And Senna himself gives it its heart. I just wish I’d gotten a better handle on who he was before the film’s checkered flag falls.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language and disturbing images

Cast: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost

Credits: Directed by Asif Kapadia, written by Manish Pandey, a Universal release.

Running time: 1:46.

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