I’d waited for over a year, but on Friday, “Senna” finally opened here in NY.  Sold out screening – in fact, there was so much demand that at around 10pm, the movie theater decided to add one more screening at midnight.  I’ll bet that got sold out, too.

Of course: it’s goddamn “Senna”.

Admission: I’m a wannabe F1 hipster.  I wish I could say, “I’ve loved watching Ayrton Senna race since day one.”  I wish I was some sort of authority on Senna like a ton of F1 fans are.  But in truth, I got into F1 long after Senna’s demise.  I have no first-hand knowledge about Senna.  I have never watched him race.  I have never watched even a video of a complete race with Senna in it.  I have watched the occasional video highlight, and I’ve read many stories about the man in the early ’90s.  But I cannot claim any first-hand experience on this person who is universally considered the single-greatest racing car driver in the history of mankind.  Certainly in F1.  And for a slightly obsessive F1 fan like myself, there’s a slight hollow feeling from not having “been there” when Senna was racing.

So when this film was announced over a year ago, I was expecting this to help “fill in the gaps”.  I had secretly hoped that it would help me get up to speed on the one driver whom F1 fans still worship, get the inside scoop, be in the know like those who really did watch him race in the early ’90s, those who speak of him like they know him.  I wanted to be as well-informed that those whose fandom pre-date me.  But because I never watched him race, I don’t feel I’ll ever be part of this Senna “inside circle” I’ve conjured up in my head.  Still…

It’s not like we’re talking about an athlete (that’s right, fuck you, racing drivers are athletes, deal with it) who rocked the sport in your grandpa’s day.  It’s not like all the footage of Senna out there is in fuzzy black and white.  Senna was current, Senna was this generation.  Senna, technically, was my generation.

But one of the first things that hit me about the film was the immediate reminder that I have outlived Senna.  Like I’ve outlived all those rock stars in the 27 Club.  He was 34 when he died.  34!!  Fucking hell.

But as the film unfolded, I realized that I’d come into it all wrong.  Here was a film about an F1 driver, right?  F1 film = lots of racing action, lots of grand prix cars fighting it out on the track, lots on loud screaming engines wailing by, that sort of thing.  It’d be like a 100 minute collection of awesome YouTube F1 clips, but in higher quality and on a massive screen.  I thought it’d be an action movie.  I couldn’t be more wrong.  This was a film about the construct of a person.  And not just any person – this was a person who received god-like reverence and fear; who in turn, had such unshakable faith in God that he probably thought that God had made him somewhat immortal.  He raced with absolute abandon.  Of fear, not of responsibility.

The race footage in the film showed me just how frighteningly quick he was.  I never really had a proper appreciation for his ability to really thrash his car around the track and make his rivals look like they were standing still.  I never properly understood just how he overwhelmed the entire sport with his speed.  But what I walked away with most of all was a firm grasp of Senna’s unbending will.  An action movie doesn’t get you these things.  This film was much, much more than that.

This film also showed a side of the sport I had never known – the chaos of pre-race driver briefings, the I-don’t-give-shit attitude drivers had about wanting to race for other teams because they didn’t think their current team was any good, the anxiety drivers openly expressed to their team.

And the anxiety of the audience… watching “Senna” is quite like watching “Titanic”: you know exactly how things are going to turn out in the end.  And the foreshadowing of Senna’s end puts a good and proper knot in your stomach.  You want to reach through the screen when Senna says that he wants to leave McLaren to drive for Williams, grab him, and say, “No, for the love of God, don’t go!”  Your heart sinks the moment Williams announce Senna as their new driver.  The second you see him in that Rothmans-sponsored race suit, it’s like watching a countdown, you know that you’re watching the beginning of the end.  And there’s nothing you can do to stop it.  And every second leading up to the moment is agonizing, sad, and frightening, all spun together.

But that said, the dork fan in me also walked away feeling like there were lost moments in the film.  Stuff that I knew about, but wanted to see covered in the film.  Like when Senna walked down the pitlane to punch Eddie Irvine in the face because he’d had the balls to pass him on the track.  The 1993 Donington opening lap.  When Nigel Mansell gave Senna a lift after Senna ran out of fuel on the track.  When Senna pulled over to help another driver who’d crashed.

But that’s not the point, is it.  Those were single episodes in the grander course of Senna’s life.  Interesting markers along the way, not life-defining milestones (OK, maybe the Donington lap – correction, definitely the Donington lap).  Was the film a lesser film for their omissions?  Of course not.  And besides, I was already quite well versed in those episodes.  I needed this film to “fill in the gaps.”  What this film did was explain the meaning of Senna.

This film will inform.  And this film will make your heart bleed.  And that’s why this is the most important film of the year.