Muhammad Ali. Michael Jordan. David Beckham. Throughout history there are men whose fame exceeds their sport, and who go on to become icons in their own right. If there is one thing this documentary does, it confirms Ayrton Senna’s iconic status. Why should you spend two and a half hours watching a tribute to a racing driver? Two reasons. The story is so gripping and exciting that it would take a very talented scriptwriter to match it, and the film is a study of the man as much as it his profession. You watch him grow and change in front of your eyes, and that is something special.
The film is crafted in such a way that offers up something for everyone. You can come into this knowing nothing about Senna and be educated, or you can enter as a lifelong fan and get a sense of context and nostalgia. The film is paced to perfection; it never feels rushed and no section overstays its welcome. You are guided through his beginnings in karting, and his various phases at Toleman, Lotus, McLaren and finally Williams. You meet his arch-rival, Alain Prost, a man so cleverly evil you are sure he should be British and played by Alan Rickman, and this relationship forms the basis of many confrontations. As you watch the man’s life unfold in front of you, you can clearly see changes taking place – an early excitement crushed, wonderment being replaced by determination, and finally a deep unhappiness. This is brought about by an exceptional choice of the clips shown. Formula 1 has always been well documented, and the filmmakers had available to them over 5000 hours of footage. They could have easily cut together a film from the famous clips that would have been acceptable for fans. That they didn’t just do this and instead combed through to find the perfect accompaniments for his narrative is what elevates this film to greatness.
While the runtime may seem lengthy, it goes by quickly in a blur of emotion. It is an easy film to invest in, and you experience a wide range of feelings, from elation to crushing disappointment. Being in the cockpit on the last few turns at Imola, knowing what is about to happen, is truly harrowing. As a driver, he ranks amongst the greatest ever. As an icon, he carried the dreams of Brazil. As a film, Senna is sensational.