Part of Connor McMorran's coverage for MKC of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (June 19-30, 2013).
Stephen Hawking is one of the most well known scientists of our time, and he will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the greatest minds of all time. When presented with the possibility of seeing a documentary about his life, I suddenly realised that I actually knew very little about Stephen Hawking beyond his book A Brief History of Time and his long-term motor neuron disease. Documentaries serve to discuss real people and real situations, acting as much as educators as they do entertainers or pieces of art. The main problem with them is their chosen medium, as film is so easily edited and changes the way people act in front of it that it at times becomes very hard to take what is presented to the audience as ‘real’.
Hawking makes use of constant establishing shots, a great deal of quick editing, and the occasional re-enactment, to detail Stephen Hawking’s past. The film follows him from birth, growing up and becoming a PhD student, before being diagnosed with motor neuron disease, which gradually took away his ability to move and talk. The film presents this narrative in a linear manner, with a large amount of talking head interviews and an over-zealous use of emotional music.
The overriding problem with the film is that it comes across as hero worship. There’s just one too many sequences of Hawking placed in front of a crowd who are in mid-applause. There’s too much talk about how brilliant Hawking’s mind is despite Hawking’s own interview stating how little work he did during university. The film ignores or brushes over various little aspects that have lessened the glowing praise that flows in every talking head segment. For a man so clearly brilliant and influential, it’s somewhat annoying to see a documentary so afraid to take any risks.
That said, the film did effectively elucidate on Hawking’s past, his life and his own thoughts about all that trials and achievements. In some way, it fulfilled its requirements as a tool for education, but the whole film is undermined by an this irritating simplicity. Hawking’s life is incredibly inspirational, and for good reason, but this documentary seems wary of discussing the bigger questions that arise from living such a life.
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