Antonio Banderas wanted to play him, Oliver Stone wanted to film him, and pretty much everybody in the world—except in the United States—wanted to be him. Now filmmakers are giving Americans a chance to catch up with Formula One race car driver Ayrton Senna with a terrific new documentary that plays like a feature film.
In Senna, there are no talking heads or cheesy dramatic re-enactments. Instead, British director Asif Kapadia pulled from 15,000 hours of archival footage to reconstruct the rapid rise and sudden death of Brazil's most famous race car champion.
The movie wowed fans at Sundance and SXSW festivals on the strength of Senna's tension-filled career. Kapadia explains, "The first act, he's a young guy winning his first world championship, the middle is this rivalry between Senna and driver Alain Prost, and the third act becomes about this cursed weekend."
Like any good feature film, Senna builds to a gripping climax. The driver, troubled by the death of a racing buddy a few hours earlier, holds the screen like a bona fide movie star as the camera zeroes in on his face a few minutes before his final race.
"A lot of people who see that say, he knew he was going to die. This footage was one of the only races where he's sitting there before the race without a helmet on, looking so troubled. I'd show the scene to people and even if they didn't know his story, they'd start crying. There's this inherent sense where you feel it's bigger than just a person driving."
Kapadia had never been to a championship race before he began putting together Senna. It's the character, not the sport, that pulled him in, he says. "We want the movie to work for people who have no interest in the sport and say 'Why the hell should I care about a racing driver?'"
Senna opens wide August 26.