Brief History of Time: Errol Morris Portrait of Stephen Hawking

Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time offers a portrait of Stephen Hawking and his quest for a unified theory of physics. In some circles, Hawking is better known for his fight against ALS (the Lou Gehrig’s disease) than for being a great scientist.

Nonfiction films about science are one of the least popular subjects in Hollywood. In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood made a few biopics about “real” scientists, The Story of Louis Pasteur, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, Edison, the Man. None was particularly effective–scientists were stereotypically depicted as befuddled, insensitive, even heartless. Science, like art, has to do with challenging presuppositions, shaking up established views. Movies, however, are about entertainment, which usually means affirming rather than questioning our values.

Many people have read Hawking’s book but didn’t understand it. Even in the film, the physics are not easily grasped, though the ideas are less important than the presence of an agile mind as it’s theorizing and searching.

Morris’ background in the philosophy and history of science proves helpful. Smart enough to understand Hawking’ work, he makes the latter’s concepts as accessible as they can be. But the film’s value is not in its informativeness, but in telling a remarkably human story. In school, Hawking was bright, but a goof-off, until he was diagnosed with ALS (at 21) and given about two years to live. Hawking’s disease, however, didn’t damage him; he not only continued his studies, he even married.

Morris uses traditional documentary methods, but employs them with fluidity and verve. The movie contains numerous interviews with his family, friends and colleagues, who are brilliant, caustic, funny, and eccentric. Morris alternates computer-generated visualizations with clips from Disney’s The Black Hole.

Unfortunately, Morris mythologizes Hawking, turning him into a secular Buddha at a center of his universe. Though Hawking insists on being treated just like everyone else, the film confirms his status as a modern oracle. The film does not discuss the split between Hawking and his wife, whom he left for his nurse. And all the science in the movie, it’s overshadowed by the human drama of the physicist’s triumph over adversity.