Near the beginning of Rush, famed Formula One driver James Hunt, played by Chris Hemsworth, waxes philosophic on the appeal of racing cars. The closer to death, the more alive we feel, he explains. From the point of view of an outsider the ludicrous speed of F1 indeed looks like quite the rush. But if you want to go inside the head of a racer, and get a true taste of that rush for yourself, then there’s a doc out there that can do the job much better than Ron Howard’s new film. Senna, from British director Asif Kapadia, blows apart all conventional ideas about a documentary’s ability to convey action.
Both films follow monumental figures from F1 history. Rush focuses on the rivalry between Hunt and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), specifically during the 1976 season, while Senna acts as an overview of Ayrton Senna’s whole career, from 1984 to 1994. The stories of both films examine the lives of the drivers on and off the track, and how their differing philosophies impacted their racing style. Hunt was a vigorous playboy who lived for his highs, and he drove entirely on instinct. Lauda was pragmatic and technically-minded and drove with safe precision. Senna was somewhere in between, always seeking to improve his craft behind the wheel but willing to seize any opportunity he found on the track. But the big difference between Senna and Lauda and Hunt, at least as they are portrayed in their respective movies, is that Lauda and Hunt were both jerks, while Senna was something close to a saint.
Senna is the kind of protagonist who is anathema to modern Hollywood filmmaking. He was devoutly religious and decent to his core. Over the course of his career, he quietly donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charities that helped the poor children of his native Brazil. He took an active role in agitating for better safety standards in the sport, which earned him the ire of its higher-ups and took on a particular poignance after his death in a preventable crash during a race. He was the kind of solid human being that fiction movies right now have trouble making compelling. But Senna has no such trouble. Without ever stooping into hagiography, it makes the viewer understand how Senna became a figure who accumulated not just fans but genuine admirers in both Brazil and all over the world. Rush uses the new standard: charming-in-theory asses as leads. While Hemsworth makes Hunt charismatic enough, he never feels like he has much depth to him. Brühl is the best part of that film, as he gives shades and layers to Lauda’s calculating nature. But they pale as characters next to Senna.
It’s not just that Senna is more likable. He viewed driving as a religious experience. To him, the rush of danger brought him closer to God. As depicted in Senna, his story is one of continual self-improvement, something he always strived for. By the time the doc has arrived at his untimely death, it feels almost like a martyrdom for what he believes in, the religious culmination of his years speaking out for the underprivileged and fighting for more safety regulation. The best part is that he was able to affect the change he wanted — to date, no F1 driver has died behind the wheel of a car made under the standards implemented in response to Senna’s death. In Rush, while Lauda and Hunt have arcs of a sort in that come to transcend their rivalry and like one another, neither of them really change much.
Of course, Hunt and Lauda are acting in service to the theme of Rush, which is the dance with death on the motorway. But this idea is bound by the film’s technical limitations. It can’t recreate the days of F1 as a deadly sport to satisfaction. And how could it? It’s a mix of CGI, limited on-track shooting, and inside-the-seat POV. The filmmakers are hobbled. They can do little more than approximate the experience. It’s telling that the most breathtaking images in the racing scenes come from historical footage of the actual races. But Senna is nothing but materials like this. And, most crucially, this includes extensive footage shot from the cameras mounted on the front of cars from the time, giving the camera the first-person view of a speeding F1 car. The effect is breathtaking. It shows us what it’s like for these drivers, and how they must react within a fraction of a second to every new obstacle on the road, moving at hundreds of miles per hour all the time. This is the kind of stuff that can’t be imitated. This is something you can only get from nonfiction.
Senna is a better character study, a more interesting look at racing, and a more exciting action piece than Rush. F1 racers may drive to get closer to death and thus feel more alive, but when you’re looking to feel that rush yourself, you can’t empathize with the replication. You need the real deal.