In an era where movie trailers reveal every possible plot twist and academic studies suggest we actually like spoilers, it’s wonderful to get a blast of the unfamiliar like Senna—a documentary that probably unfolds most compellingly if you have no idea how it will end.
Plenty of people—especially those who follow Formula 1 road racing—will know how it ends, because Brazilian born Ayrton Senna was the sport’s biggest, most charismatic star in the 1980s and 1990s. Following him from his days as a go-kart enthusiast to his rise to fame as a professional, director Asif Kapadia covers Senna’s uniquely spiritual yet balls-out approach to plying his craft, as well as the rivalry with French driver Alain Prost that came to define much of his career.
Much of the appeal of Senna comes from the way Kapadia keeps his story in the present tense. Though contemporary commentary from journalists and Senna’s friends and family members is occasionally employed in voice-over, not a single talking head appears on the screen; every shot comes from archival footage, and some of it is utterly fascinating. As interesting as it might be to hear someone describe how Senna shook up the Formula 1 racing establishment, it’s infinitely better to actually watch a driver meeting before a race in which Senna literally launches a democratic revolution against a potentially dangerous course setup.
The narrative proceeds through a dramatic series of events in spring 1994—though “narrative” is really the wrong word, since Kapadia doesn’t force Senna into a particular arc, or dwell too long on subtext like Senna’s role as hero for a troubled country. It’s simply engrossing as a character study on a moment-to-moment basis, including a driver’s-eye-view camera from inside Senna’s car in one late race that is as tense as any cinematic moment this year. It’s the kind of suspense that only comes from not being sure—and caring—what happens next.