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Ali. Pele. Jordan. Quiz most Americans about the most compelling single-monikered sports champions of the 20th century and you'll get a reliable set of responses. But Senna?
Even hard-core U.S. sports fans probably have little notion of Ayrton Senna da Silva, a Brazilian Formula One race car driver who rose to prominence in the 1980s and came to be regarded as the best driver of all time. But as Asif Kapadia’s new documentary “Senna,” currently playing at the Landmark Theatre, makes clear, we should probably clear some space in our sports pantheon for him.
Charismatic and complicated, droll and intense (and with an unexpected religious side), Senna cemented his legend by winning the Formula One season title three times. His mystique was deepened by his rivalry with Alain Prost, a cagey French driver who, as the film shows, was prone to manipulating the Formula One establishment to get the better of his nemesis.
Capping off the drama: Senna died on the track, suffering a fatal head injury in 1994, at 34, while leading the field at the San Marino Grand Prix.
The athlete, who with his on-course success and movie-star looks achieved fame of folk-hero proportions in his native country, was particularly known for his frank approach toward the über-political Formula One leadership. In one telling and humorous scene from archival footage, we see Senna, at a meeting with fellow drivers, questioning the head of the sport’s governing body over a safety issue, then sauntering out of the room when they begin giving him the runaround.
If his stance seemed fresh in the early 1990s, it comes off as iconoclastic in today’s world of celebrity athletes, where images are tightly managed.