The PBS documentary Hawking takes an autobiographical approach to one of the most fascinating scientists ever.
“I have lived two-thirds of my life with the threat of death hanging over me,” says Stephen Hawking toward the beginning of the new PBS documentary Hawking, debuting tonight on most PBS stations. Although the first moments of the doc point toward this thesis and perhaps set the stage for a pessimistic accounting of the physicist’s life, Hawking becomes a fascinating tale that feels too confined within its one-hour running time.
The film could be described as a unifying theory of Hawking. Hawking serves as the primary narrator of his story, with interjections from friends, caretakers, and his first wife. The story is told chronologically for the most part, with Hawking’s humor cutting through with his unique voice. One of the first (of many) beautiful establishing shots includes the Simpsons action figure from one of his cameo appearances on the program. We learn about his underachievement in childhood, his initial struggles with ALS, the technology used to help him communicate, his unifying theory (and the fervor that followed), and the publishing of A Brief History of Time. We also get to hear his take on life in the public eye, about which he maintains his sense of humor despite the cost he paid in both of his marriages.
If anything, I wish this was a prologue to a series about Hawking rather than a single comprehensive piece. Though we get a glimpse of the technology developed by Google to allow Hawking to communicate—a process involving facial recognition and movement of his cheek—a documentary could be produced simply on that subject. Though A Brief History of Time has already been produced as a documentary, the story behind its publishing felt more like Cliff’s Notes. There are few scientists who have become pop culture figures, and I would love a deeper exploration of the subject.
Hawking, both the documentary and the man, are sources of inspiration. Do not miss this.