Stephen Hawking could easily be called the Charles Darwin of the 20th Century. Discovering something that would help explain the formation of the Earth, he completely revolutionized how astrophysics is practised and thought about. After he published the work of his career in a book called A Brief History of Time, Errol Morris decided to make a documentary about the man behind the theory and the theory itself. Since he made this documentary, it has been famous for being hard to get a hold of. I have been trying to get a VHS copy of the film for ages and finally last night I stumbled upon a crappy upload of the whole film on Youtube. I am so glad that I got to finally experience one of my favorite documentaries of all time.
Hawking’s story is one of the most unusual in the scientific field, but one that is totally captivating. Diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, this genius man went on to complete a doctorate at Cambridge and become the head of science at this lauded school for decades the whole time working on his theories about the black hole. His mother at one point in the film said that he probably wouldn’t have been able to think and hypothesize about the nature of black holes if he hadn’t developed ALS, because his lack of freedom to do anything forced him to be constantly in his head. Before he was diagnosed, he was active in several activities and thought about other things beside math and science. He probably wouldn’t have had the focus that he now has if he was a fully capable human being in the physical sense.
Despite the disease rendering him a physical vegetable, he has a cheekiness that is enduring. He doesn’t need to speak the words himself in order to be truly witty. It was quite refreshing that this stuffy academician also had a sense of the macabre. Trust me, you don’t come across that ability much in the scientific world. He related one incident where he was giving a lecture in Rome and he was granted an audience with the Pope. The Pope said that it was okay to theorize about everything up until the Big Bang, but the Big Bang was an act of God and therefore unable to truly be theorized about. He said that he was glad that the Pope wasn’t at his lecture the next day because that is exactly the subject he was lecturing about.
Errol Morris is considered one of the best documentarian of all time, because he captures truly unique interviews. He gets them to bring out the truth in themselves and to show the truth in the audience. He has done this with Robert McNamara (also a great documentary entitled the Fog of War), Guantanamo prisoners and guards, death row inmates, and Stephen Hawking. However one of his faults is what the footage he puts in between the interviews. Although not as major a gripe as it was with the Fog of War, some of the footage was kind of boring and empty compared to the informative interviews. Maybe that was the intention, but I was bored by the continual pictures of buildings at different angles. I would have rather seen more pictures of Hawking as a lad or more pictures of his diagrams that he used to think about his theories. I would have also liked to see an interview with his wife, but I’m sure I didn’t see it for a reason. Overall though, the interviews that he gets in this film completely make up for everything including the bad sound, the thick English accents, and the boring footage. It stimulated me intellectually and started me thinking about ideas bigger than what I am going to eat or see next and I love when films do that. Also it made me jealous that I was not some genius scientist with ALS… That was hard to admit.