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Original Issue

Senna Meter

Taking measure of a new documentary on the Formula One legend

To U.S. racing fans more accustomed to the cartoonish rough-and-tumble and cheery commercialism of today's NASCAR, the precision, peril and sheer passion of Formula One in the late 1980s and early '90s on display in Senna will be breathtaking. The film, which was a hit at Sundance and which opened last week in a limited theatrical release, captures an era when racers were far more than just company men in firesuits—and foremost among them was three-time world champion Ayrton Senna.

Blending judiciously chosen on-track footage with dramatic behind-the-scenes video and minimal narration, director Asif Kapadia unfolds a stirring and deeply touching portrait of a man whom many still consider the greatest Grand Prix driver of all time. The angelically handsome Senna, a national hero in his native Brazil, is also the last driver to have been killed in F1, and the shadow of his '94 death at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, when he was just 34, gives the documentary a tragic arc.

In the end, though, what shines through is Senna's transcendent talent (watch him storm from fifth to first on the opening lap of the rain-soaked '93 European Grand Prix, passing more cars in one circuit than most of today's drivers do in a season) and his almost religious commitment to his sport, even in the face of political intrigue and gamesmanship that nearly broke his heart.

Senna's death resonates to this day, but, thanks to Kapadia's film, the driver's brilliant life takes the lead once again.