Asif Kapadia's documentary on legendary Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna's career is a thrilling piece of film that has no problem crossing-over into audience that has no idea about car racing. Speaking as one of those people who has a) little to no knowledge of cars and their racing and who had b) never heard of Ayrton Senna before, Senna captured me for it's full runtime.
If nothing else Senna would be a masterclass in editing technique to tell a story: the entire film is constructed from archival footage covering Senna's career from 1978 - 1994, with the occasional voice-over narration from people involved to provide context. And what footage! There has been a remarkable amount of access been granted here, from thrilling in-car footage as it careens around the track, to pre-race meetings with drivers and officials to home video with Senna on family vacations. For a documentary, it is remarkably well constructed along narrative lines. Ayrton Senna is something of an artist behind the wheel of really fast cars; his natural talent astonishes and outstrips those he races against. Early on in the film/his career we see him place first after lapping almost every other racer and have no troubles with conditions (such as a wet track) that would otherwise flummox lesser drivers. And on top of that, he's a proud Brazilian at a time when Brasil was experiencing mass poverty and a deep financial crisis.
So, we have the young and talented Ayrton Senna as our hero. Cast as his opposite in the world of racing, is Frenchman Alain Prost. Where Senna had a natural flair behind the wheel, Prost was a man who played the angles; whether they be on the track or behind closed doors. He's the old lion trying to protect his turf from the young up-and-comer and he's not adverse to having a few words with the (French) president of Formula 1. These two men jockey for position, with it often coming down to tense confrontations at the World Championships. But there was still a certain amount of professional respect between the two men. They hated each others guts, yes, but they respected one another. And Senna himself, with the advent of newer and better racing technology that takes some of the skill away from the driver, begins to become as paranoid and untrusting as Prost.
What really got to me was the audience reaction to all of the very real-life drama. Be they motorheads or car-ignoramus', everyone was invested in the film. There's a hero and a villain, politics and talent, ups and downs, reversals and reveals. Senna, though made entirely of archival footage, has the feel of a "big budget" or Hollywood style documentary, in the best sense. It is structured and paced magnificently, really humming along with no real lags or stumbles along the way. For someone who had never heard of Ayrton Senna before and who had no interest in the world of Formula 1 racing, I came away from Senna fairly buzzing.