Another week, another sporting documentary praised by critics for being about ‘more than just the sport itself’. I don’t really understand this as a point of particular acclaim. Surely sport – especially sport which someone has deemed worthy of a documentary – is always about more than just the bare essentials? What did they expect? Just results and statistics scrolling across the screen?
In fact Senna, like Fire in Babylon before it, almost totally eschews the facts and figures in favour of a more emotional, personality-driven account of its subject. In this case it’s Formula 1 ace Ayrton Senna, who was world champion three times before suffering a fatal accident at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. Asif Kapadia’s film is purely a chronological collage of archive footage, with no talking heads or contemporary context – perhaps the only way to tell this story, such is the dramatic weight of its ending.
For the most part it’s entertaining enough, especially on the rivalry between Senna and the French driver Alain Prost. Footage of their prickly words in press conferences is only a reminder of how image-consciousness and fear of the media has altogether sucked the personality out of today’s vapid sports stars. There are great behind-the-scenes recordings of drivers’ meetings – including arguments about safety – and an interview by F1 legend Jackie Stewart in which he accuses Senna of recklessness on the track.
All the while the film is building towards its ghoulish conclusion. When the time comes, the audience is in no doubt as to what’s about to happen – the pace has slowed, some choice quotes are shown – and then Kapadia uses the on-board camera to place us in Senna’s car with him for his final lap. It feels like the longest sequence without a cut in the entire film, and is absolutely electric – morally dubious perhaps (is this snuff movie territory?) but artistically compelling for certain. The entire cinema around me was transfixed, open-mouthed, in doom-laden anticipation.
Kapadia cuts away just before the fatal moment, which we see in a longer shot. There’s then a section depicting the funeral, intercutting shots of attendees with footage of their respective encounters with Senna from earlier in the film. It’s the first time the strict chronology is broken and, paired with typically emotive music, feels like a rather sentimental memorialisation.
But I was frankly so gobsmacked by the previous sequence that by this point it seemed irrelevant – just as the film’s first ninety minutes (perfectly diverting at the time) suddenly felt tacked on. I don’t think Senna is faultless, or that it’s particularly bad. But that last lap really is something – something I think I’ll remember for a long, long time.