I've grown quite fond of documentary films over the past five years. What impresses me about the genre is how they have the potential of turning something uninteresting into something fascinating and riveting. Such is the case with 'Senna.' I know nothing more about race car driving than what I learned from playing 'Gran Turismo 5' online – yet this documentary completely grabbed me, educating me at the same time and offering a thorough education of the sport to allow me to discuss it with ease.
Ayrton Senna is known as one of the all-time best Formula 1 drivers. 'Senna' opens by showing the race in which he exploded onto the scene in 1984. Senna was one with his car. He was able to control it in ways that nobody had seen before and few have been able to do since. Oddly enough, the only condition that made him a better driver was during terrible rainy and wet weather. Sure, he was pitted against many other very strong drivers, but based on his wins and performance, no other driver at that time was his equal.
The struggle of Ayrton Senna's career is the highlight of this documentary. Shortly after making a name for himself, he was signed to the same team as his rival driver Alain Prost. Theoretically, the two would make strong members of a team because it seemed like each big race was won by one of the two, but in reality this was a nightmare scenario. Hot-headed Prost acted like his throne was threatened by a no-name young driver, so he went on the defensive. Despite being teammates, the two were involved in multiple crashes that appear to have been caused by Prost sideswiping Senna, just because Senna was about to beat him. Mind you, Ayrton Senna wouldn't be much of a central character worth rooting for had he been the prideful cause of these crashes. The well documented video serves as the proof of Senna's innocence in these cases, also proving Prost's guilt.
Because he was young and full of an uncorrupted love for the sport, Senna had nothing to do with the politics behind Formula 1. Don't know the politics? Don't worry – the film spells it out for it. Senna wasn't ignorant to the off-the-track workings that other drivers had to use to their advantage to get ahead in their careers; he chose not to participate in it. It's obvious that this only angered the officials, but Senna never let up. The Powers That Be obviously and unfairly tried pushing him out of the league, but Senna never gave up. He continued to follow his sole dream and passion despite the resistance. They would change the rules, Senna would adapt and continue to win. They tried to kick him out, but he quietly waited out his suspension and returned with more passion than before. The league's only move that truly affected him was the required installation of computerized balancing systems.
Like any good film, 'Senna' is populated with great characters. Ayrton comes across as a self-motivated, positive and kind man. (If you study about him online or dig into the special features, you'll find even more evidence backing this portrayal.) He was charming and charismatic, turning Prost into a great villain because of their same shared aspirations. Prost is not that bad a guy, he just makes selfish decisions. Like Billy Mitchell in 'The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,' Prost is the villain that you love to hate. If anything, the heads of the league are portrayed as the worst lot of them all.
What I look for in a documentary is a strong and unique objective. For example, one of my favorite aspects of 'PJ20' is that there isn't a single outside source to be found within the film. Each bit of interview footage is conducted with first-hand witnesses and the members of Pearl Jam – not the critics and fans who share opinions about the band or the music. Bias is completely removed because we're given first-hand factual testimonials. 'Senna' also carries an unbiased angle of it's own.
One hundred percent of 'Senna' is made up of archival footage. Every aspect of every race that's described in the voice-over interviews is backed up with footage showing those same moments. Despite consisting of old video tapes, what you see is breathtaking. The uncut in-cockpit race footage is terrifying and exciting at the same time. Formula 1 cars don't seem to be defying physics from a spectator's point-of-view, but being in the cockpit as Senna takes a corner at more than 100 miles-per-hour is brilliant and astounding.
Although there is plenty of modern-day interview dialog in the film, not a single frame of contemporary footage makes its was into the 106-minute runtime. The interviewers are only heard, never seen. Like 'PJ20,' these interviews are conducted with first-hand witnesses of the events as they unfolded. Had Ayrton Senna been alive today, I'm certain that he would have lent his commentary to this documentary. Although that's not the case, the testimonials given by his family, friends and colleagues – including Old Man Prost – are just as genuine and authenticating as everything that you witness on screen.
Without being remotely close to a motorhead or fan of race car driving, 'Senna' has managed to become one of my all-time favorite documentaries. It does everything that a documentary should do – it educates, informs, and definitely entertains.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Arc Entertainment has only placed 'Senna' on a BD-25, but considering that the entire film is made up of flawed and old archival video footage, a BD-50 would not have made a difference in the presentation. The single disc is housed in a standard blue Elite keepcase. When you pop the disc into your player, an unskippable FBI warning plays before a duo of skippable trailers – 'Born to Race' and 'Knuckle.'
'Senna' has been given a worthy 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The entire film is made up of old video footage, so don't expect demo-worthy video quality – but it's as cleaned up and preserved as it can be. The footage may come from video tapes, but it is clearer and cleaner than any video footage to come before it.
Like your dad's only home recorded VHS tapes, there are some tracking issues to be seen, as well as random instances of slight odd warping discoloration. The only nice aspect of this video footage is that it doesn't feature the same flaws as old film – scratches, dirt, debris, etc. During the filmmakers' commentary, it is explained that some of the video was found on web services like YouTube, but the film doesn't carry that ugly pixelated look of poor compression that you'd expect from a blown-up internet video.
As we chronologically move through the story, as film technology improves, so does the video quality. Sporadically through the second half we even get a few shots of actual film stock footage. The instant switch over to a high level of film grain makes it immediately evident – and it's gorgeous.
Nothing has been done to "enhance" the quality of 'Senna.' No DNR or edge enhancement. And because the video isn't all that detailed, there aren't any noticeable instances of banding, artifacts, aliasing or digital noise.
'Senna' has been given a decent 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio track that's not great, but better than it should be.
The first thing that caught my attention during this lossless mix was how great the original score was spread throughout the channels. The music is always on the strong side. The effects, like the video, featured dating flaws. Obviously, there aren't going to be many fantastic original audio cuts to work with here, so the effects don't always sound top notch – but when we're given a strong set, they sound stellar. The audio tends to reside in the front channels, but when we get large shots of audience or pit-crew madness, the audio shifts into another gear and fills the channels dynamically.
As you would expect from the recently recorded interviews, the voice-over audio is perfect; however, the archival interview footage shown in the film is where the vocal track shows its age. Especially during trackside interviews, the vocals sound blown-out. I presume that this is due to the cleaning-up process that lowers the volume of the absurd amount of background noise and boosts that of the voices. Even with these flaws, it's sure to sound better than it has ever sounded before.
You don't have to be a Formula 1 enthusiast or have an ounce of knowledge about the high octane sport in order to fully enjoy 'Senna.' Like every great documentary, it teaches you what you need to know about the topic in order to understand the message and story that it tells. You don't even have to want to know anything about Formula 1 in order to enjoy 'Senna' because the storytelling makes it more than entertaining on its own. Documenting the fast rise to success of one of the sport's most iconic drivers, Ayrton Senna, be prepared to quickly learn the rules and risks of the game and the politics behind it. Had the sport not been documented through the career of a charming and charismatic driver, the film would presumably not be worth caring about as much as it is. Shown entirely through archival footage from the mid '80s through the mid '90s, the video quality isn't great – but it's clean, clear and shows racing footage in a breathtaking fashion. The audio quality is also lacking, but it's obvious that the filmmakers made do with what they had. Two of the four special features are more than worth your time. The hearty feature commentary and hour-long interview feature expand and further the narrative of the film, giving even more insight and heart to the story. If you're a fan of documentary films and haven't yet seen 'Senna,' what are you waiting for?