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This is a thoughtful and carefully constructed documentary about Senna, the charismatic but volatile three time world champion Brazilian Formula 1 driver who died in a tragic crash at Imola during the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. Senna had a “win at all costs” mentality and he occasionally took unnecessary risks.

Making extensive use some 15,000 hours of archival footage, British director Asif Kapadia (Far North, The Return, etc) and his editors, Gregers Sall and Chris King, chart Senna’s spectacular career over the course of a decade. As a teenager, Senna raced go-karts, which he described as a pure form of racing – “there wasn’t any politics, no money involved either, so it was real racing.” Because he lived life in the fast lane and in the public spotlight, there is no shortage of material that captures Senna’s professional life. Kapadia’s extensive research into Senna’s life saw him sift through archival footage, television coverage, interviews, and home videos to put together this in depth portrait. Away from the racetrack though, Senna was a fairly private man, although there is some footage of him at play and at home with his family.

Kapadia eschews traditional narration, and lets the footage, and a few candid interviews, tell the story. There are some contemporary interviews with sporting commentators including veteran Brazilian writer Reginaldo Leme, Richard Williams and former ESPN writer John Bisignano, who all offer further insight in Senna’s mystique.

Apparently Kapadia had never been to a Formula One race before starting work on this film, but he brings an enthusiasm and outsider’s perspective to the material. He effectively captures the sights, sounds and smells of the motor racing circuit. There are even some amazing point of view shots that place in the driver’s seat as Senna’s car races around the track. Kapadia also manages to inject an element of tension into the material during the lead up to the fatal accident that changed Formula 1 racing forever.

To many people in impoverished Brazil, Senna was a hero, a figure to be admired, and that reverence clearly comes across in the film.  But this is not always a flattering portrait of Senna, who occasionally comes across as arrogant and driven to succeed. We see how he became disillusioned at the sport as it embraced technology ahead of the raw skill of the driver, and how he butted heads with the administration of the sport. There is also a glimpse into the backroom politics and manoeuvring that denied him the World Championship in 1988.

The film looks at his intense rivalry with McLaren teammate Alain Prost, who is painted as the villain of the piece. Despite their on track rivalry though, Prost must have respected Senna’s ability because he was a pallbearer at Senna’s funeral. The other villain of the piece is arrogant and aggressive FIA boss Jean-Marie Balestre, who revelled in playing politics with the drivers and the safety of the sport.