It's not worth a spoiler alert to point out that racecar driver Ayrton Senna dies at the end of Senna, Asif Kapadia's routine sports documentary, which receives a theatrical release this week.
The question then is: Why should we care enough to watch? That's been the challenge for, say, ESPN's "30 for 30" series -- and some of the best of those films (such as Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks) have found the human story that makes a knowledge of sports secondary to the enjoyment of the film.
Obviously, if you're a Formula One-racing fan -- or perhaps a fan of any sort of motor sports -- then Senna's name, career and legacy are of interest. But Kapadia needed to find a way to make Senna's story meaningful to viewers who aren't interested in Senna, cars or racing.
No such luck.
Instead, Kapadia's film assumes not only a familiarity with Senna's life and talent on the part of the viewer -- it counts on them. And it assembles the various events in his short career span (he died in 1994 at 34, after only a decade in Formula One) in such a way to make this seem like formulized cut-and-paste filmmaking, devoid of excitement or insight.
What can we glean from this film? Well, let's see: that Senna was a daring driver who leaped at gaps other drivers were too timid to shoot for; that Senna was at his best in the worst rainy conditions; that he was ill-served by his sponsoring team, which put him side-by-side with his chief competitor, Frenchman Alain Prost. Though they were racing for the same company, they obviously were incompatible.
Indeed, dramatically, the flaw is that the villains are so obvious, both in their affect and in their actions. Prost comes across as a self-involved and smug jerk; the Formula One officials -- who seemed to bend over backwards to favor Prost and screw the Brazilian Senna -- don't twirl their mustaches but might as well. What's amazing is that every attempt by the governing body of Formula One circuit to screw Senna seemed to go by with no one protesting except Senna. Why? What were the consequences? Kapadia's film isn't saying.
Senna comes across as a spiritual guy who loves to go fast -- and who has a certain quick charm with women. Otherwise, it's not as if he was some philosopher-king among drivers, or a great mysterious figure, or a tragedy of wasted potential. He was just a racecar driver who won enough championships to make himself legendary (at least within the confines of Formula One lore), and who, one day, crashed into a wall and died. The end. And the start and finish of Senna.
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