"Hawking," an autobiographical documentary about the world's most famous Stephen

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Wednesday, January 22, 2014

You may know of Stephen Hawking because your mom gave you A Brief History of Time when you were a teenager and it blew your mind. Or perhaps you have nightmares about how black holes are in a constant state of evaporation because of Hawking Radiation. Maybe you’ve hummed along to “Symphony of Science” a time or two. Regardless of what you know about Hawking and his work, your perspective is a hole-filled outsider’s. Hawking, a new documentary about the world’s most famous theoretical physicist airing January 29 on PBS, will caulk those gaps in your knowledge and give you the kind of inside look normally reserved for the people closest to him.

“Come with me, and I will tell you the story of how I became who I am,” Hawking says at the beginning of this autobiographical movie. In case you’re unfamiliar with the genre, it basically means the film’s narration is “Stephen Hawking on Stephen Hawking,” with scenes of “Important people in Hawking’s life on Hawking” punctuating the self-told tale.

The film begins at the beginning, with Hawking’s home life. Between dramatic reenactments (not, mind you, by Hawking himself) and interviews with key players like his sister, Mary Hawking, the viewer gets a true sense of Hawking’s childhood as the smart son of smart people. “I had a passion to understand how things worked,” he says, “from toy trains to the universe.” And while this now seems absurd, his sister remembers that his family used to wonder how he would turn out. “The question was always whether he would use [his] intellect to go anywhere,” she says.

He follows the semi-prescribed path — and in the film, we follow him — to Oxford University, where he discovers that he’s fascinated by these mysterious things called parties before discovering that he’s fascinated by quantum effects on black holes. The documentary’s insights into Hawking’s past, and to others’ views of his past self, instantly take him from simply a “guy with muscular disorder who is way smarter than you and everyone you know” to a “human being.”

Hawking then delves into the astrophysicist’s early career and cotemporal marriage, which began soon after he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease.  His first wife, Jane Wilde, says of him, “The goddess of Stephen’s life, with whom I was sharing the marriage, was physics.” Ultimately, we find out, that coy mistress leads to the dissolution of their union. The documentary, though, follows them through their 26 years together, during which Hawking transforms from slacker student to ailing and depressed student to mouthpiece for the kind of astronomy that will give you an existential crisis. 

Along the way, the film features interviews with those who interacted with him at each stage of his life, including early graduate students, current graduate students, medical attendants, a second wife, and celebrity friends, such as (turns out, not so dumb/dumber) Jim Carrey. As the timeline moves toward modernity, we see more and more actual footage of the past, including video from the years just after his diagnosis. Hawking describes his triumphs, struggles, and stumbling blocks, including how typing at a speed of one word per minute with your cheek muscles is a pain in the ***.

Things have been going pretty well for Hawking recently, though, despite his increasing health problems and a second divorce. He was able to experience microgravity, for instance. As he says, “One advantage of being a public figure is being asked to do special things.” …

… Like narrating a documentary about yourself. In Hawking, viewers are able to experience the famed physicist as a dynamic person — and someone with a past and a future — rather than a static man (pun intended?) who makes scientific pronouncements. Here, he ruminates not on cosmology but on his own life and the gravity of his experiences, letting us peer over his event horizon (puns intended).

To watch Hawking live January 29, check your local listings for viewing times. To order a DVD, which features an extended theatrical version, visit the PBS store starting February 4. The film was produced by Darlow Smithson Productions Ltd. for PBS.

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