Directed by Asif Kapadia. (2011, PG-13, 104 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 26, 2011
Even if you couldn't give a good goddamn about fast cars chasing their tails around a track – as is likely the case for a sizable swath of Austin, if the ongoing protest over the proposed Formula One facility in Travis County is any indicator – this British-made documentary about F1 racing legend Ayrton Senna is still undeniably gripping stuff. Senna skips the history and the mechanics of F1 racing, instead confining itself to a portrait of perhaps the sport's greatest practitioner: the Brazilian racer Senna. He began in go-kart racing and burst onto the F1 stage in 1984, where his matinee-idol looks and fearlessness on the track earned him an international fan base and the adoration of his fellow countrymen – "the only good thing in Brazil," one downtrodden citizen exclaims – as well as the rancor of some of his fellow drivers. His greatest rival, the French, multiple World Championship titleholder Alain Prost, speculated publicly that Senna's devout Catholicism made him believe he was invincible, and therefore more dangerous to himself and other drivers, a charge the magnetic Senna is seen refuting in one of the many archival interviews the film draws on. In fact, the film relies entirely on archival footage, frequently supplemented by voiceovers from contemporary interviews with Senna's friends and colleagues. The early, wavy-lined video from the Eighties is an unfortunate cross to bear, but the quality of the footage improves dramatically as the years go by and, of course, as the production values of sports reportage became slicker and more professional. The film doesn't shy away from the terrors of racing – there are more than a few cringing crashes and crumpled bodies on the tarmac – and it takes pains to highlight Senna as a crusader for better safety in the sport, a directive that tragically wasn't taken to heart until after his death in 1994.