You should see Senna. AKA The Passion of Saint Ayrton. Well, he doesn’t suffer too much, except at the hands of McLaren teammate and arch-rival Alain Prost, especially his political machinations for the 1989 championship, and FIA prez and machiavel, Jean-Marie Balestre. After winning the penultimate race of the season, Senna was disqualified in a behind-the-scenes showdown that gave the championship to Prost. But Senna avenged himself at the same race the next year in a satisfyingly symmetrical real-life instance of poetic justice.
In the third act of the documentary, we see Senna becoming more politically adept, including forcing Balestre’s hand in a driver’s meeting by using the FIA’s own regulations against the president. Balestre is humiliated by a vote of the drivers immediately after he delivers a tyrannical rant about the justice of all his decisions by virtue of the fact that they are his decisions. Balestre’s personal application of divine command ethics in his superintendence of Formula One contrasts with the devout Senna’s frequent references to his relationship with God, reflected in his apparent humility about his accomplishments and his discussion of racing like an alchemical practice that is a catalyst for spiritual experiences on the track.
No doubt about it, Kapadia’s documentary is pure hagiography, no more so than in its portrayal of Senna’s final weekend. His sister reports that the night before his death in the San Marino Grand Prix, Senna read the Bible for comfort (after another driver had died during qualifying) including a passage that says the best gift God gives is God himself.
The access to personal video footage provided by Senna’s family probably came with a restriction on the filmmakers’ freedom to delve into Senna’s personal relationships which are not explored beyond superficial references; neither his wife from a brief early marriage nor his last girlfriend are mentioned at all. But as long as exhaustive biography is not your expectation, then the omission of personal soap opera doesn’t feel like too much of an absence because it leaves more room for the drama of Formula One which is entirely sufficient material for an hour and three quarters.
As it is, there are already lacunae in his racing performances you wish could have been fleshed out, but the choice to focus at length on decisive moments from a few specific races, integrated with coverage of the politics being played behind the scenes, is immensely satisfying. The merciful absence of talking heads in favor of voice-overs from contemporary witnesses — commentators, friends, family members — in turn allows more room for video footage of the subject himself whose face, thanks to his sympathetic personality, is implicitly interesting to watch regardless of whether he is speaking.
This is by no means the final word on Ayrton Senna. But the dramatically perfect arc of his life, especially his rivalry with Prost, ought to make this story fascinating to anyone regardless of their interest in racing for its own sake. Recommended!