Very Highly Recommended
Say what you want about Michael Moore, and Lord knows that there is quite a bit to say, you have to credit him for breathing life back into Documentaries as a dramatic art form. No, while Documentaries existed long before Mr. Moore, it was to his everlasting credit that he was able to so spectacularly make them both meaningful and entertaining.
From Roger and Me (1989) to Sicko (2007) he allowed the American moviegoer to see first hand the underbelly of our revered capitalistic system. Though his relevance has waned in direct proportion to his physical corpulence, we movie fans owe him a great deal for his groundbreaking contributions.
And I couldn’t help but think of the crotchety Mr. Moore as I watched the powerful documentary Senna in a crowded theater last weekend. This is an extraordinary biographical film about an all but forgotten racing legend, and it is mesmerizing from beginning to end.
Aryton Senna was born in Brazil in 1960, and became the functional equivalent of an international rock star by the time of his tragic death in a F1 race in Imola, Italy, on May 1, 1994. Having won three Formula 1 World Championships, he became a revered idol to millions of his fellow Brazilians who were caught in a tragic social web of poverty, crime and hopelessness.
This film quickly reaches up and grabs you by the throat, ever tightening its grip as you follow Senna to his tragic end. Told in real time with archival footage, you come to know this man in a personal way that is the core to the film’s success.
Let me flatly state that you don’t have to be a racing fan to fall under this stunning documentary’s spell. While the racing sequences are frequently spectacular, particularly when seen from a camera mounted in Senna’s machine, what touches your heart is the intimate portrayal of the man himself.
In a world where the general public is forced to deal with insufferable, self-centered sports egos like LeBron James, Roger Clemens and Tiger Woods, Senna remained a devout, humble man to the end. Despite his wealth and fame, he had a genuine faith in God and devotion to his family that was moving beyond words, particularly for a non-believer like myself.
From a racing standpoint, much of the movie centers upon the fierce rivalry with his teammate Alain Prost when they were both driving for McLaren. Their fierce competitiveness led them to a bitter estrangement resulting in a touching reconciliation where Prost, a four-time World Champion himself, served as one of Senna’s pallbearers.
But Senna scores also on a “Michael Moore” level in that it lays bare the disdainful, petty politics that ruled F1 racing at the time. It is a tribute to Senna the man that while he was a victim of those pernicious, “smoke-filled room” deals, particularly where he was cruelly denied a championship by a completely idiotic ruling that took away a victory following a crash with Prost, Senna never became bitter. To the contrary, no matter how hard he was knocked down, he always came back with grace and an even greater sense of determination.
One of the great ironies of Senna’s life was that he remained the last Formula 1 driver to die during a race. Many of the safety concerns he championed were aggressively investigated following his death, and the F1 racing circuit will forever stand in his debt.
Yet for all the compelling moments of this biopic, nothing exceeds the passionate devotion of the Brazilian people to Senna and his reciprocal love for them, a connection so viscerally on display that you almost felt like a Brazilian yourself. Brazil was suffering during the 1980’s, and his countrymen were looking for something to believe in and give them hope. Senna was that man.
In particular, the viewer is treated to a golden moment where Senna won the Brazilian Grand Prix for the first time. In the scenes of his countrymen wildly cheering at the race itself and while watching on TV sets around the country, you hear Senna repeatedly screaming in ecstatic joy as he crosses the finish line. Some in the theater were smiling through their tears.
And when you see Senna’s long, motorized funeral procession as it wound its way though hundreds of thousands of crying Brazilians, you can’t help but mourn with them. This is much more than simply a documentary. It is a fiercely honest film with emotional resonance that will touch your soul.