Ron Howard’s Rush opens with a curious bit of voiceover – Daniel Bruhl, acting as Niki Lauda, tells the audience that he’s known for two things: his feud with fellow Formula One racer James Hunt (played in the film by Chris Hemsworth) and the accident that nearly claimed his life. In the context of the film, it’s not a weird choice, as most of Rush centers quite firmly on the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt that its third act plot point – the one about Lauda’s horrific accident and his subsequent recovery – feels almost shoehorned in. But it is strange because the Lauda storyline is, on its own, extremely compelling stuff. Sure, Howard’s film attempts to comment on the nature of competition and how having a professional nemesis can drive certain people to great things in a pretty definitive way, but anyone who knows anything about Niki Lauda knows that it was his accident that really defined him. James Hunt was simply a part of that.
Rush is fine as is, featuring some great performances and one hell of a third act, but it’s a misfire because it doesn’t give its all to the very best part of the story and just go pedal to the metal on a true Niki Lauda biopic.
Fortunately, for anyone who isn’t compelled to see Rush right now (or perhaps ever), there’s an available alternative that makes Howard’s latest blockbuster look easy, emotionless, and utterly middle of the road. It’s called Senna, and it’s the best documentary about anything you’ve probably never seen.
Asif Kapadia’s film was hit on the festival circuit (it played Sundance, SXSW, LAFF Melbourne, and more) and it even picked up a BAFTA, a Sundance audience award, and a slew of critic circle accolades, but Senna is still remarkably underseen. Released in theaters by Universal, the doc only made its way to forty-seven theaters in its widest release, pulling in about $1.6m in total box office cash. Numbers aside, I’d find Senna to be remarkably underseen if any cinephile that considers themselves intrigued by sports stories hadn’t ever watched it. It’s that good – everyone should see it.
I didn’t know much about Senna the film or Ayrton Senna the man when I first saw the film back at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2011 and, paradoxically enough considering the thrust of this column, I still think that’s the best way to take in the film. It’s certainly the most powerful way.
Beautifully and seamlessly assembled from thousands of hours of footage – races, home videos, public appearances, and more – Senna tells a remarkably complete life story in less than two hours (though there is a longer cut available) and with nothing resembling formal commentary. The film traces Senna’s racing life from his early start in karting and open-wheel racing in the early eighties, all the way up to his final season in 1994.
Senna won three Formula One championships, he holds the record for wins at Monaco (six), and he even had his own rivalry to keep him on his toast (against French driver Alain Prost). He was outspoken about the rules and politics of his sport (something that Lauda was also pretty mouthy about, and something that does pop up in Rush). A Brazilian native, Senna was a national hero who was loved excessively by his countrymen.
Highly accessible, Senna works because it chronicles such an over-the-top and interesting talent – Senna would have been compelling had he excelled at anything, but the added edge of racing makes him just irresistible. The film is a near miracle of execution and engagement, an absolute joy to watch that is deserving of all the relentless hyperbole I’ve heaped on it over the years. Where Rush fails to ignite, Senna excels, providing a full look at one great athlete and an easily digestible examination of a complicated sport. It’s easily one of the best documentaries of the last decade, if not one of the best films, and you don’t even need to leave your house to watch it.