Over the angry, desperate whine of open-throttled Formula One engines, Senna blisters with a jarring intensity. Asif Kapadia’s documentary follows the career of determined F1 racer Ayrton Senna—a little-known figure here, given America’s general preference for hillbilly-pandering NASCAR, but a national hero in his native Brazil. Senna’s career was, to say the least, impressive: After starting off as a speed-obsessed rich kid zipping around goofy little racetracks on goofy little karts, Senna’s skill eventually landed him a spot on the McLaren Formula One team, where alongside—and eventually, at bitter odds with—fellow racer Alain Prost, he’d go on to win three F1 World Championships by the time he was 31.
Years later, any look at Senna’s career is one that can’t help but include highs, lows, and a dark sense of foreboding—but where Kapadia’s Senna succeeds is in how immediately visceral it makes these proceedings. Senna’s visuals come from archival video—from interviews, from home movies, from televised races, and from Senna’s eye view granted by violently juddering on-board cameras that tear their way along F1 tracks as he speed-runs through straight-aways and carves around curves. This exhilarating, blurry footage is decades old, but it feels like it’s happening now.
Kapadia’s focus is almost exclusively on Senna’s racing: We learn little of his private life, save for glimpses of his steady Catholicism, a few mentions of his privileged background, and a couple of impressive demonstrations of how the much the ladies liked him. (Spoiler: a lot. And the appreciation was mutual.) But for as little as we see of Senna-the-man vs. Senna-the-racer, it’s astonishing how well we seem to know him by Senna’s emotionally crushing conclusion: We get to know the charming, obsessed Senna through his racing, and by the end, it’s hard to imagine any other way of knowing him.
It’s also hard to not draw comparisons between Senna’s brilliantly efficient racing and the style that Kapadia employs from the very beginning: relentlessly sharp, casually confident, and spiked with anxious adrenalin. Kapadia has what feels like an innate understanding of cinema’s most basic building blocks: These deftly spliced visuals transport, excite, and terrify while the soundtrack gracefully toggles between careful observations from those who watched, knew, and raced alongside Senna and a pitch-perfect score by Antonio Pinto. Senna’s a documentary, but it’s vastly more thrilling and moving than any of this summer’s half-assed blockbusters. Maybe that’s because when Senna raced, one feels that not a single turn of his wheel or twitch of his foot was wasted; watching Senna, it’s hard to spot a single frame that’s out of place.