Stephen Hawking’s fame is global. Even if one is not completely aware of his accomplishments or his specific contributions to the field of applied physics, his name is recognized nearly everywhere. Errol Morris’s documentary, A Brief History of Time, titled after Hawking’s seminal book published in 1988, is a careful analysis of the physicist’s life that reveals a brilliant man, unafraid to live up to his potential.
Morris’s style as a filmmaker is somewhat quirky. He can bring a level of playfulness to his films, and this documentary is no exception. At first, the audience is left wondering if this playful style is appropriate for a film about a man who has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as other honors. However, one quickly realizes that Morris’s style matches the eccentricities of the Hawking family and highlights their own idiosyncrasies.
Morris interviewed Hawking’s family members and childhood friends, while grounding the documentary with the physicist’s own voice, pushed through a voice generating computer system. Hawking characterizes black holes—a term coined by fellow scientist John A. Wheeler—discusses event horizons, and the essence of time as seen through, or inside, a black hole. The information is delivered in a direct and easily understandable manner. Further, Hawking details how time slows down within the black mass, and he also goes on to relate that midnight would never occur in a black hole as time would slow to the point where the last remaining second would occur repeatedly, never moving forward. It is easy to parallel the specifics of time as it relates to a black hole to Hawking’s own battle with ALS, a disease that was supposed to take his life shortly after his initial diagnosis. Instead, the illness slowed down and, finally, halted, allowing Hawking to live the life he was told he shouldn’t expect to have.
Morris structures A Brief History of Time chronologically, beginning with the events that surrounded Hawking’s birth on January 8, 1942, and follows a path to 1991, the year the film was produced. Hawking discusses his birth, which occurred exactly 300 years after the birth of Galileo. Around 200,000 babies were born in the world on the same day, but he has been the only one to improve upon Galileo’s contributions to science.
The film also touches on Hawking’s obvious intelligence and passion for quantum mechanics. Perhaps the most enlightening aspect of this documentary is an interview, in which Hawking discusses his attitude towards education and the systems of learning. Although clearly brilliant, he didn’t always apply himself to schoolwork and almost failed his final exam at Oxford University. When professors asked him what he would do if he were given the highest grades upon graduating, Hawking simply replied that he would go to Cambridge University to study for his doctorate. He did receive the highest grades and continued on to Cambridge. Hawking’s honesty and matter-of-fact personality shines consistently throughout the film and reveals a man without arrogance or ego, who chose to live life on his own terms.
Even though Hawking is confined to a wheelchair and unable to move, nothing about this man appears to be “limited.” ALS never affected his brain or ability to think, and that fact is made abundantly clear in the film. However, what really anchors this documentary is Hawking’s obvious love of physics and his genuine dedication to his field. Interviews with family and friends reveal his refusal to let his disabilities get in the way of his work—mentally or physically. Even when he and his wheelchair were crushed by a car, resulting in 13 stitches, he was still back at work within a day.
Hawking’s theories are also captured on film; his understanding of whether the universe has a beginning and an end is presented. But the fascinating part of listening to Hawking answer questions about the creation of the universe is the journey through his mind we, the audience, must take. It is a journey that is both a pleasure and an honor to be a part of.
Rebecca Troy is a freelance writer and editor residing in New Mexico.