When I see a documentary about a famous figure, I expect to learn something new. I’ll leave it to the biopics to play up familiar aspects, dramatize particular moments, and bend the truth. When it comes to the documentary and the subject is an active participant in the filmmaking, then we should be able to go deeper. Sadly, Hawking rarely lets us get a fresh look at one of history’s greatest minds. Walking into the film, we know the surface of Stephen Hawking: he’s a genius, he’s disabled, and he’s famous. Other than some cursory moments about Hawking’s marriage and the professor’s sense of humor, Hawking is a disappointingly shallow exploration about the man who discovered the depth of the cosmos.
Narrated by Hawking, the documentary takes us from his birth to the present as well as examining his daily life working at Cambridge, his nursing care, and his celebrity. Moving across the course of Hawking’s life, director Stephen Finnigan heavily utilizes dramatizations to accompany interviews where the interviewee discusses particular aspects of Hawking’s work and personal life. The illustrations are particularly helpful when trying to explain the basics of Hawking’s remarkable, groundbreaking discoveries. When going into Hawking’s personal life, the recreations border on the melodramatic, but the cinematography helps maintain the emotions without overselling the moment. Throughout, Hawking’s robotic narration provides a surprising amount of emotion as well as his sense of humor.
Hawking’s place in pop culture shows he has a sense of humor about himself, but Hawking shows he’s sharp enough to write his great own jokes, like when he says a Eureka moment “may not be better than sex, but it lasts longer.” His wit isn’t too surprising when you consider the massive intellect behind it, but it’s a welcome and rare discovery in Finnigan’s documentary. The only other time we see a Hawking we don’t know is when we get a look at his turbulent marriage to his wife, Jane, and the toll from his physical degeneration and the rising demands of fame.
But even this look at Hawking’s marriage is an outgrowth of the film’s main exploration of Hawking’s intellect, disability, and celebrity. Earlier in the movie, Hawking says how he sometimes wonders if he’s become as famous for his disabilities as for his discoveries. I would say, “Absolutely.” If Stephen Hawking wasn’t one of the most brilliant minds in human history, you would look at him and feel pity for how ALS ravaged his body. If Stephen Hawking wasn’t disabled, he would engender a level of scorn. Hawking’s disability makes people put aside their petty insecurity because it provides a superficial balance. It’s that fake trade people sometimes offer to each other: “If you could ____, but you had to ____, would you?”
Finnigan plays into this mindset by crafting a hagiography where we can only admire Hawking. That’s not to say the director should seek out someone who dislikes the scientist, but we don’t get a hard look see Hawking’s vulnerabilities and personal shortcomings. His disability isn’t his fault, and part of the strain on his marriage was because he was too famous; the world loved him too much. There should certainly be some grandeur for the man who discovered the beginning of the universe, but a constant singing of his praises becomes a tired tune.
There are moments where Finnigan is about to take the main topics like genius and disability, and show how one affects the other. We see that Hawking always had a passion for science, but his disease created urgency for discovery. Later, Hawking tells us that his inability to communicate allows him to “get lost inside my own thoughts.” But these moments are few and far between. Instead, Finnegan wastes time on scenes like interviewing Jim Carrey so the actor can talk about a comic bit he once did with Hawking on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. This comes near the end of the film as if we hadn’t already realized that Hawking was famous and funny, and it shows that Finnigan is at a loss when it comes to delving deeper into the professor’s life. Finnigan clearly has a deep admiration for Hawking, but the documentary only provides us with a brief history of what we already know.
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