Note: this review will take a look at both the theatrical and the extended version of this documentary, as there are notable differences between the two that change the tone of the film. The extended version is currently only available on the Italian DVD, although this will probably (hopefully) be available on other releases as well.
Ayrton Senna. Just mentioning his name will light up the eyes of racing fans across the world. His untimely death in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix proved him a mere mortal, but in his native country, Brazil, he is revered as a god. The fatal crash cut short a career, yet he is still regarded as the greatest racing driver ever. What made him so special? It is this question that director Asif Kapadia's documentary tries to answer, and while it doesn't quite succeed at that, it is still a riveting inside view into the world of Formula 1 racing, seen through the eyes of a perhaps naive man, whose idea of racing was simply to go as fast as you can.
The documentary spans Senna's Formula 1 career, from his start with the small Toleman team in 1984 to his funeral in 1994, but the main focus is on his years with the McLaren team, and in particular his bitter rivalry with French driver and teammate Alain Prost (a 4-time World Champion, and a legend in his own right) between 1988 and 1990. A dramatic and championship-deciding collision between the two in the penultimate race of the 1989 season confronted Senna with the politics involved in Formula 1 racing, even though the documentary shows this was not his first run-in with officials. While Senna was a pure and competitive racing driver, only interested in driving fast and winning races, Prost was a calculating driver and much more proficient in the politics of the sport. With the help of FIA president and fellow Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre, he managed to make the chips fall in his favor. The latter is especially shown in a negative light, as we see Senna clash with Balestre on several occasions over safety regulations and other issues. The irony is that Senna's constant hammering on safety led to changes which have prevented any other driver being fatally injured since Senna's own deadly crash. An almost identical collision in the last race of the 1990 season, that time giving Senna the championship, was also the result of a controversial decision by Balestre. Senna later admitted that he hit Prost intentionally.
After a short overview of the 1991 to 1993 seasons (in which Senna won a third title, after 1988 and 1990), the focus shifts to the disastrous Grand Prix at Imola on May 1st, 1994. Smart use of footage and music by director Kapadia boosts the drama of the event to cinematic levels. Seeing Prost at the funeral, and finding out he is a trustee of the Senna foundation, puts their rivalry in a different light and makes the documentary's portrayal of Prost up until that point ring slightly false.
And this is where the interesting difference between the theatrical version and the extended version of the documentary lies. The theatrical version is made up completely of archive footage, some of it never before seen, and it is completely devoid of the 'talking heads' that usually are prevalent in this kind of portrait. By doing this, Kapadia creates a life story with a dramatic arc, which plays very cinematically and makes for a powerful portrait. In this version, Prost and Balestre are the villains that the hero Senna has to contend with. In contrast, the extended version does make use of 'talking heads', and one of them is Alain Prost himself. Interviewed extensively for the documentary, Prost seems to have mellowed somewhat over their feuds, and even gets emotional over a gesture Senna made a few days before his death. At times he may sound like a politician with selective and convenient memory gaps, but this version paints a much more nuanced picture of the Frenchman. Competitive, self-confident, but not too unlike Senna.
The other people interviewed also change the tone of the documentary, and it is The Guardian's Richard Williams and ESPN's John Bisignano who are most affecting. Williams, ponderous and all British reserve, manages to explain what was so good about Aytron Senna's driving, and his influence on the sport as a whole. Flamboyant Bisignano brings the drama, as he remembers fan reactions to both Senna's victory at his home circuit of Interlagos and his funeral in his hometown of Sao Paolo. Both men are a joy to listen to, and manage to inject a humanity into the story that is mostly lacking in the theatrical version. The theatrical version is more cinematic (thus ably validating why it is the theatrical cut), but the extended version is the better one, because it paints a fuller picture. It gives more sense of the accomplishments of Senna, and how the man touched lives. From the perspective of a racing fan in general and a Senna fan in particular, it is difficult to judge how interesting this documentary would be for casual viewers, but many should find it a thrilling tale, especially the theatrical version.
The documentary in both versions does focus mainly on the racing and on Senna's compulsion and competitiveness. Some fragments of Senna's private life are highlighted, among them his charity work for underprivileged kids. These parts feel brushed over, although his influence on the spirit of Brazil as a nation is conveyed pretty well. The portrait is actually very positive as a whole, with very little room for criticsm. A 1993 incident in which Senna punched rookie driver Eddie Jordan in the nose is not mentioned, for instance, and Senna's intentions in the 1990 incident with Prost are downplayed. To be fair, the film also skips some of his more heroic deeds, on- or off-track, such as saving the life of fellow driver Érik Comas at Spa-Francorchamps during qualifying in 1992. Senna is an exhilarating portrait of a competitive driver, an activist for fair and safe driving, and a very generous man. With his charming, almost boyish smile and appearance, it is easy to see why he was loved. It is a shame that the documentary fails to fully explain why he was such an exceptional driver though, especially for non-racing fans. It mentions how good he was in wet conditions (rain separates the men from the boys in racing, and none was ever better than Ayrton Senna), and how he managed to win in Interlagos with only a 6th gear for the last part of the race. But what truly makes him the greatest is that he raced against four of the top champions in the sport (Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill, and Nigel Mansell), and managed to give them all a run for their money. However, this is a minor criticism of an otherwise splendid (and splendidly told) film.