Before Asif Kapadia took home his Oscar for Amy, he made an equally great film about a very different star who died too soon.

When I write profiles and have an opportunity to go deep with a subject, I like to ask them this question toward the end of the interview: Have you ever been close to death? I am going for that seminal moment of self-mythology: the time when he was a kid and slipped off the side of a mountain; the Hawaii vacation where she went too far out in rough tide; that night inside a New Haven liquor store as it was being robbed. But what would it be like to ask that question to someone who faced death nearly every moment he/she was alive—a person whose greatest gift was the ability to dance Astaire-like across death’s void? What would their answer be, and what would that life look like?

Senna is a movie that, despite all that deafening octane, is able to move you in the gentlest and most human of ways

2010’s Senna, about the legendary Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna, answers both those questions with breathtaking honesty and vividness. While technically a documentary, director Asif Kapadia’s film is not like any other documentary you’ve seen, felt, or experienced, and somehow calling it one feels like a disservice to its grandness and scope. Stripped of talking heads, narration, or Ken Burns pan-and-scan, this is a movie electric with you-are-there immediacy, whether behind the wheel of a terrifyingly fast car on the streets of Monaco, or at a testy drivers-only meeting that teems with love and resentment. The action is larger-than-life, but so are the emotions: indeed, this is the rare documentary built for the Buick-sized flat screens and clutch of speakers that exist in many peoples’ living rooms. Even in your own home, Senna is an experience of pure cinema.

From the moment that it starts, Senna is rich with themes of fate and responsibility, friendship and betrayal, God and death. In dramatically grounding these high-minded themes, Senna has more in common with The Lord of the Rings movies than a typical sports documentary, where it ranks alongside Hoop Dreams among the all-time best.

The film tells the story of a hotshot go-kart driver’s quick rise through the Formula 1 ranks, until he runs smack dab into Frenchman Alain Prost, the leading driver of the time and briefly his teammate at McLaren. You can see early on, before they stop speaking to each other, the tension in their relationship, just as clearly as you can sense the respect and even love they share when they are driving each other into walls and sand pits in search of world championships.

You learn more about Senna’s relationship with Prost than you do any intimate in his life, which helps keep the movie tense and focused in a way that a typical biopic is not. Being Formula 1, even their trash talk takes on the air of the metaphysical. “Ayrton has a small problem,” snipes Prost. “He thinks he can’t kill himself because he believes in God.” Responds Senna, “I’m not immortal. I am afraid as anyone of getting hurt.”

The Prost stuff is one of the qualities that makes the film so special, along with its bouncing, propulsive score and the incredible footage that Kapadia digs up to tell his story. There is television footage, interviews, home movies, but nothing beats the camera lodged inside Senna’s screaming racer, especially when he wins the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix. We are in the car as Senna is in the lead for the whole race. In the final laps, the gear box busts, and he is stuck in sixth. That he’s able to hold on and win is an act of sheer will for which his body pays the price: his shoulder and arms are spasming and he is barely able to hold his trophy aloft. “Touch me gently,” he says to his father as he comes to congratulate him in a moment that sums the film up perfectly. Senna is a movie that, despite all that deafening octane, is able to move you in the gentlest and most human of ways, even while providing physical action as thrilling and involving as any of Hollywood’s spectacles.

 

NOTE: The perilous nature of motor racing is a key theme of Senna and the filmmakers emphasize how Senna’s death led directly to sweeping safety reforms in the sport that, for 20 years, eradicated on-track fatalities in F1. Sadly, we were just  reminded again that the danger can never be completely removed from motor racing with the death of driver Jules Bianchi. Our hopes and thoughts are with his friends and family.