SXSW Review: Hawking


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Stephen Hawking has always struck me as simultaneously tragic and yet inspiring. Diagnosed with ALS in his early 20s — basically a death sentence — he’s beaten the odds for five decades. Even as the ALS has progressed and diminished his mobility further and further, he remains one of the most brilliant and influential theoretical physicists in the world.

As many mention in Stephen Finnigan’s biodoc Hawking, it’s as if the man’s thinking was taken to a new level as his motor skills and ability to write dissipated. We don’t get as much breakdown of the science in this documentary, and there’s no mention of Errol Morris’s A Brief History of Time, the 1991 documentary on Hawking and his seminal book of the same name. Yet what Finnigan provides is a personal look at the life of the genius.

Director: Stephen Finnigan
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD
Country: UK

Part of the close access to Hawking comes from Hawking’s own involvement in the film. It’s his robotic voice that narrates much of the picture. It’s fascinating to hear that voice recount discoveries and dark periods. While it’s not an emotive voice at all, there’s a sense of ache when Hawking remembers brooding to Wagner following his diagnosis. The voice is also able to deliver dry jokes with surprising effectiveness. We’re told from friends, former classmates, and colleagues just how funny Hawking is, and that sense of humor crops up now and again. At one point Hawking sarcastically dismisses one of his live-in nurses. She laughs because his response comes quick — more like a real voice quipping, less like a frustrating communication program. While ALS has greatly affected Hawking’s facial muscles, there is something of a smile in his eyes that’s hard to miss.

Over the course of the film, you can track just how much the ALS has changed his stature. There are wedding photos from his marriage to his first wife Jane Wilde that show Hawking as a nerdily handsome guy, though already he had to use a cane during the wedding. His Oxford and Cambridge photos make him look like an intellectual party animal. Hawking confesses that while at Oxford he was a bit of a goof-off, only studying 1,000 hours in those three years.

Part of that coasting through academia comes from his parents, both of whom were intellectuals. Hawking was already demonstrating a remarkable sort of intelligence at an early age, and his folks helped cultivate that. He and his sister recount dinner conversations about science and religion, the sorts of topics that usually involve undergrads rather than children and tweens. That sort of intellectual nourishment at an early age is so tender, the sort of thing you’d expect from Hawking’s upbringing, but it’s touching to know it’s true — he’s not just a scientific wunderkind, he’s the product of his parents’s love. An example of Hawking’s brightness and young wit: he once told his folks that he liked debating for the existence of God because he could make everything up as he went along.

One fascinating area of exploration in Hawking is the man’s voice system and how it works. When he finally lost his inability to speak — the result of a near-fatal incident — Hawking’s voice machine was controlled by hand. Over time as he lost the use of different muscles, he’s had to rely on new systems that make use of his limited movement. Hawking’s ability to communicate has slowed over the years given his condition, but we get to see the latest system update: it makes use of minute movements of his cheek muscle. Even though the familiar drone, there’s a sense of enthusiasm in how quickly Hawking is able to scroll through words and speak, like thee traffic just let up on the freeway.

Throughout Hawking, several former graduate assistants are interviewed, and it reveals just how closely he works with these young scientists. On the one hand, he’s dependent on them and needed help, especially in earlier days. Prior to hiring 24-hour care, some of these assistants had to take care of necessities; one graduate assistant even had to serve as interpreter when Hawking’s ability to speak waned. There’s footage of this man leaning close to Hawking to hear what he has to say. Hawking’s voice is barely intelligible, like a murmur heard at the far end of a room. But these graduate assistants were more than just general helpers; some seem like they’ve become lifelong friends as well.

Amid these intimate interviews of Hawking about Hawking, Finnigan includes his own recreations of Hawking’s past. This act of recreation is something that’s interested me about certain documentaries. I’m no purist about documentary methods, and I think it can work so long as the recreations are in tune with the tone of the rest of the film. The TV-crime-drama shadowiness of The Imposter, for instance, works because the entire story is about invention. Or there’s the theatricality of the recreations in Man on Wire, and a kind of unobstrusive recreation in Project Nim. With Hawking, I think some of the recreations are the only slip-ups of the film. They’re jittery but aim for elegance, like the excess of J.J. Abrams combined with the excesses of Terrence Malick, and it’s a bit distracting.

I can understand this impulse, however. These early recreations which are the most stylized are Hawking when he was still able-bodied, so there’s a sense of superactivity to his youth. It’s meant as contrast rather than complement, but something about it doesn’t quite fit, maybe because the contrast is so jarring. It may just be a question of dialing it back a notch. Yet even though these are semi-distracting moments, I think they’re only briefly detract from the rest of an otherwise solid documentary portrait.

What stands out most in Hawking is this inspirational sense of how strong the mind can be pushed, how deeply it can ponder, how far it can reach. Given, we don’t get a detailed primer on Hawking’s ideas on blackholes and cosmology, but what’s there is enough to understand the importance of the man’s contributions to science and our understanding of the universe. More than the thinker, we get the man himself going through his routine. He lectures at university still, he mentors students, and he attends champagne receptions, the bubbly fed to him by spoon. While the chit-chatting goes on around him, Hawking may or may not be listening; he’s most likely lost in thought, which may be where he feels most at home.