Friday, November 11, 2011

Senna: Life in overdrive

Though it rather daringly confines its visual trajectory to nothing but archival footage—most of which feature its hero, Brazilian racing superstar Ayrton Senna, traversing tracks the world round at dizzying speeds—it could hardly be said that Senna simply goes around in circles. Its narrative, which skims the surface of Senna’s personal life in favour of his professional one, is burnished down to its mythical contours, rendering Senna’s meteoric rise to World Champion and tragic death at 34 in a mid-race crack-up as an Icarus tale, not one of hubris exactly—Senna spoke with great humility about his gift and his sense of debt to the god who endowed him with it—but of a deep faith in speed and glory that transcends reason. One memorable interview clip finds Senna describing a major turning point in his career arriving when he found himself behind the wheel and feeling as though he was no longer conscious. But this yearning for ecstasy was balanced by a fierce intellect, one trained to make split-second risk assessments. Senna was a champion because he was ruthless on the track, and his record for accidents was nearly as exceptional as his winning streak. Some thought him reckless, but the thrill of his greatest feats are undeniable: he won the Brazil Grand Prix with his car stuck in sixth gear for multiple laps; his fingers had to be pried from the wheel afterward.

Senna the film, now available on DVD, directed by Asif Kapadia, edited by Chris King and Gregers Sall, and written by Manish Pandey, understands very well that adrenaline is key to its appeal, whether the audience is full of racing enthusiasts, those who crave a solid sports documentary, or those who are simply drawn to high-stakes stories of ambition. Things move fast, excitement accumulates, and we’re often treated to views of the action from Senna’s on-board camera. But it should be said that this need for speed ultimately obscures everything else, and the absence of talking heads makes it tough to distinguish between the various commentators we hear speaking almost constantly on the soundtrack. So by the time Senna is over, you might feel as though you missed a great deal in the blur.

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