Review: ‘Senna’ Goes in Circles, But Never Puts the Pedal to the Metal

Documentary about acclaimed Formula One driver barely scratches the surface

If ESPN Films takes on a subject, we should assume that it's got a story to tell that’s more complicated than something that could be covered in a five-minute segment on “SportsCenter.” That doesn’t seem to be the case with its latest release, “Senna,” which tells us not bloody much about the guy who’s ostensibly the subject of the movie.

Fans of Formula One racing know the saga of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian driver who rose from obscurity to become a world champion in the 1980s and ’90s.

And what “Senna” does best, particularly for those not well acquainted with the racing world, is to explain the politics of Formula One and how Senna navigated them, and what it was that made him such a talented driver.

We see young Senna get chosen for the prestigious McClaren team, where he raced alongside acclaimed French driver Alain Prost, and we follow the mounting tensions as these two teammates clash with each other as both attempt to win the World Championship for themselves.

The film also conveys what a hero Senna became in his native Brazil, uniting the poor and the wealthy alike in their enthusiasm for what this native son was accomplishing on the world stage.

But while “Senna” features terrific footage of the races — as well as behind the scenes peeks into the pit, the garage, and the drivers’ meetings — it never tells us very much about the man at all.

We learn that he’s spiritual, and that he’s close to his parents, and that he’s a philanthropist. And that’s about it. He apparently dated a lot of women — including blonde-bombshell TV show host Xuxa, on whose insane Christmas show we see Senna make an appearance — but none of them are interviewed, and we get very little sense of what fueled his ambitions, or why he became such an instinctive and intuitive race car driver.

The only moment in which “Senna” doesn’t completely beatify its subject occurs in an archival interview where retired champ Jackie Stewart tells the young hotshot that Senna has bumped more cars in his first three years on the circuit than most Formula One champs do over the course of their careers.

Senna gets somewhat annoyed at this line of questioning, but then the subject is dropped and never raised again in the film.

If you’re a fan of Formula One, you’ll enjoy seeing this footage on the big screen, but unlike the really great sports documentaries (“Hoop Dreams,” “When We Were Kings”), this one offers little to those not already versed in the subject.