You might think one big difference between the biopic and the documentary life is that in the latter all the characters are allowed to play themselves, and that when they die, we see their actual friends and parents weeping. You wouldn’t be wrong to think this, and after the title-figure of Asif Kapadia’s Senna has failed to survive a high-speed crash into a barrier at Imola in the San Marino Grand Prix, the whole of Brazil is seen weeping along with his intimates, in footage that in several ways contradicts the complex image we have been shown of the man. There is no mistaking what has happened for these grieving crowds: a god has died.
But the film isn’t about a god, and this is another difference between biopic and documentary. The one can’t really resist idolisation, even if it goes wrong, and the other can’t really do idolisation, even if that is what it may be trying for. What Kapadia and his writer Manish Pandey seem to want first and last is a kind of low-key divinisation. The god is still a god, but also a humble fellow at heart, uncomplicated by success. There is nothing in the film to confirm this view except its beginning and ending, where the 21-year-old Ayrton Senna is seen making the move from go-kart racing to the fringes of Formula One. That was real racing, an older Senna tells us in an interview. No politics, no money, just racing. At the end of the film the earlier images and the phrasing are repeated within a larger context. Senna is answering a question about whom he most enjoyed competing with, and he says he has to go back to the real old days, 1978 or 1979, when his admired opponent in the go-karts was the British driver Terry Fullerton. No mention of Nigel Mansell or Niki Lauda or Michael Schumacher. Still less of Alain Prost. All Senna ever wanted, in this perspective, was to drive cars fast. Politics and fame were for other people; or perhaps just a cross he had to bear. He was fond of calling on God to help him, and of thanking God for his success, but in the film he movingly resists the rather nasty suggestion from Prost that belief in God meant belief in invulnerability – that’s why, Prost is saying, Senna felt he could go in for collisions others would avoid. Senna replies that he always knew he was mortal. God wasn’t going to get him out of that, and didn’t.
The other sentimental moment in the film, apart from the stuff about the humble racing man, occurs just before he starts the race in which he dies. We learn from his sister that earlier in the day he had looked randomly for a passage from the Bible and found one in which God said his best gift to humans was himself. In context this sounds like an announcement of death, a gathering into God’s embrace, and the amazing footage Kapadia has used shows us Senna sitting in his car in close-up, eyes closed, getting mentally ready for his last circuit. What’s sentimental here is not the flooding emotion about death and God but the transposed awareness. Everyone else knows, and can wallow in, what the unfortunate Senna can only fear.
He had grounds for his fear, though, and recalling them we re-enter the world of politics and money – and technology. A few years before this race, when Senna was still driving for McLaren, versions of the Williams car he died in were equipped with elaborate electronic aids that made them safer than other cars at very high speeds and on tight corners. These aids were then ruled to be unsporting, a matter of unfair advantage. Without them, though, the Williams cars came to be thought less safe than others. This is not to say the other cars were accident-proof. Senna’s young compatriot Rubens Barrichello had a bad crash in a Jordan at San Marino, and the next day, the day before Senna’s death, the Austrian Roland Ratzenberger died in a Simtek Ford. Kapadia’s film makes the point that no one has died in a Formula One race since Senna. The year was 1994.
The politics and the money are a different story. The money is implied everywhere in the narrative but scarcely ever addressed openly. The politics are about racing rules and rival ambitions, and this is where the film’s most interesting and firmly sustained complication lies, its clearest departure from the biopic. Senna is modest, engaging, funny, mischievous, flirtatious, earnest without being solemn, a sort of Platonic idea of a pop star giving an interview. But he is also ruthless, bending rules if he is not complaining about them, and when Jackie Stewart, in an interview, asks him about the fact that he has had more collisions than many other drivers put together, Senna is genuinely indignant at the question, not because of the mention of the statistic but because of the implication that a real competition might involve moral or other limits. ‘If you don’t go for that gap,’ he says, ‘you’re no longer a racing driver.’ The gap in question is between Prost’s car and the fence at Suzuka in the Japanese Grand Prix: Prost wasn’t leaving Senna enough room, and Senna wasn’t accepting that there wasn’t enough. The two cars collided and got stuck. The principle here, articulated elsewhere in the film too, is not that nice guys finish last, but that really brilliant nice guys may finish second, and second is as good as nowhere. And yet isn’t Senna, in this film, the nicest guy we can imagine?
There’s also the French conspiracy, allegedly masterminded by Prost and FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre. Senna overtakes Prost for the lead at Monaco, but the race is abandoned because of rain and Prost is awarded the victory because he led the last completed lap; or Senna gains pole position, only for it to be switched to the dirty side of the track. The film gives us the story very coolly. For all the appeal of the conspiracy theory, the alternative – even nice guys can be paranoid – seems just as plausible. I felt the film wanted us to believe in the conspiracy, as it wants us to believe that Senna’s modesty and simplicity can survive his own ruthlessness (through his concern for the Brazilian poor, perhaps), but that is the virtue of documentary. Even framed, it can sometimes speak for itself, just go on saying whatever it says. That is why Buñuel gave up his wartime attempt to re-edit The Triumph of the Will into a satire on the object of its intended praise. What the footage says in Senna is that a lot is not being said, and it’s often hard to guess what it is.
Many reviewers have insisted Senna is not a film just for Formula One buffs, and this reaction too is a response to the film’s restraint. It’s true there is enough in-car camera, along with a terrific racket in the soundtrack and sharp turns hurtling towards us at tremendous speeds, to keep the fans quiet if not happy, but as I am suggesting, there is much more in the film too. There is everything it tells us about the sport itself, the strange, weirdly visible way in which the skills and imagination of individual drivers are caught up in particular developments of machinery and industry – it begins to feel like a combination of professional tennis and space exploration. And there is the truly eerie sense we get throughout the film of watching scenes we shouldn’t be able to watch: private moments, closed meetings, multiple angles on a single scene, shot-counter-shot, cutting from protagonist to protagonist as in a fiction film. How could there have been so many cameras in all these places, with this sort of access? It’s as if the cameras knew the whole story all along, not just the mode and day of death but the shape of the career. I have no idea how this is done, or where all the footage comes from, but the effect is unmistakeable. We seem to be seeing a constructed version of Senna’s life – well, of his professional life; his private life is all but absent – with all the pieces in it that wouldn’t ordinarily be photographed, for which there shouldn’t be footage. This effect is especially remarkable when we move from what is manifestly an old newsreel or TV programme to … To what? To what looks like a film made last year but must be composed of material shot between 1980 and 1994. Perhaps he really was a god, and came back to relive the necessary scenes for the kino eye.