PARK CITY - Thanks to ESPN's "30 for 30" franchise, I haven't exactly been starved for quality sports documentaries over the past 15 months. In fact, thanks to ESPN's "30 for 30" franchise, my expectations for sports documentaries are now significantly elevated.
My Friday (Jan. 21) afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival may have been a trio of World Documentary Competition entries, but two of the three films could probably fit under the broad umbrella of sports documentaries. I've already reviewed Ian Palmer's bracing "Knuckle," which uses Irish Traveller bare-knuckle boxing as a prism through which to view bloodthirsty cinema and any efforts to solve cultural problems through violence.
Asif Kapadia's "Senna" is more conventional stuff. It's a biopic about the late Brazilian Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, still one of the world's most revered sportsmen. It's very linear and very traditionally formatted.
But just because "Senna" is familiar doesn't make it any less thrilling. In fact, I found myself appreciating the work done by Kapadia, editor Chris King and composer Antonio Pinto all the more for the by-the-numbers movie they could have just as easily delivered.
More after the break...
"Senna" is the rare Sundance documentary that doesn't particularly need Sundance. Ayrton Senna is an iconic figure and if you get outside of this particular pocket of the world, Formula One racing is a pretty big deal. Although Friday marked its North American premiere, "Senna" has already opened in a number of international territories, boasts Studio Canal and Working Title among its producers and opens with a Universal Pictures logo. The reason "Senna" will benefit from its presence in Park City is that this is one place where "acclaimed foreign documentary" trumps "adrenaline-fueled story of one of the greatest race car drivers ever." People who think "Senna" is a laxative might find Robert Redford's seal of approval a viable reason to stand in line in the cold.
Personally, although I have many esoteric sports interests, Formula One has never exactly been on my radar. I followed Michael Schumacher in the late-'90s because of the uniqueness of his statistical achievements, but I can't tell you who has been atop the standings recently. But even I remember the rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, the parallel tracks the men seemed to be on such that every championship came down to one or the other and the unvarnished animosity between the two men.
Certainly much of "Senna" focuses on that rivalry, the clash of wills and cars between the passionate, possibly dangerous Brazilian and the calculated, politically connected Frenchman. Since there's never any question what side the filmmakers are on -- "Senna" is nothing if not Team Ayrton -- the rivalry is most illustrative in terms of defining Senna in terms of the way he raced, how his style was different from the other drivers on the track, and the games that Senna wasn't willing or able to play within the Formula One hierarchy.
Although "Senna" premiered in countries where the driver is a household name, the doc is designed to be every bit as enjoyable for viewers whose only exposure to auto racing is NASCAR, or the occasional viewing of the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day. But as with any good storyteller, Kapadia educates by showing, rather than telling. The nuances of the twisty road courses and their specific challenges aren't explained through text or talking heads, but rather through race and practice footage and examples of how Senna's talents in this world were unique. Even when milieu-specific terminology is used, the director introduces footage that clarifies the language.
Stylistically, Kapadia made one crucial choice that defines the entire movie: Although he conducted many interviews with people who knew or worked with Senna, he doesn't use that material in a talking-head format. What's seen in "Senna" is entirely footage from his career, with the audio illuminating and clarifying events, but never distracting viewers from the primacy of the images. Perhaps due to its worldwide popularity (or perhaps part of the cause of its worldwide popularity), Formula One appears to have been one of the most documented sports ever. The coverage of individual races was outstanding, particularly the sport's pioneering use of in-car cameras that let viewers zip around tight corners in Senna's cockpit. The circuit had camera positions throughout every course and there few moments that weren't captured from multiple angles. The access was every bit as good behind the scenes, with some of the documentary's best scenes capturing drivers-only meetings, press conferences and preparations with the crew. And because of Senna's celebrity in Brazil, his private life was every bit as documented, whether he was guesting on local talk shows or serving as a figure of honor at Carnivale.
But merely having the footage isn't enough. You have to know what to do with it. Kapadia and his editor have crafted a narrative for "Senna" that's  impressively literary in its use of foreshadowing, juxtaposition and dramatic pacing. Some of what Kapadia does is obvious. The Angel of Death hangs over "Senna" from the opening frames and the driver's spirituality and worries about his long-term legacy only build as we head toward the inevitable conclusion. What's more impressive, though, is when Kapadia can introduce a piece of vintage interview footage with a seemingly superfluous bit of information from 1988 and then provide a payoff 15 or 20 minutes later. There's almost no fat in the entire film. By the last 30 minutes of the documentary, I was amazed by how well Senna's character had been established and how sturdy a foundation had been set for the events of his final season. The story is triumphant and celebratory, but simultaneously foreboding throughout. As with any piece of storytelling where the end is known in advance, the trick isn't just in getting viewers to the conclusion, but in making the ups-and-downs of the journey as effective for people who already know the ending, as for people who begin in the dark.
"Senna" plays as a tragedy and as a sports film, but the driving footage and its utilization within the film allow the doc to also work as an adrenalized action film, with a propulsive musical score to match. I'd have been content to just watch "Senna" as a sturdy archival biopic, but the degree of my enjoyment beyond that makes it one of the real surprises of the Festival so far.
A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.