One of the greatest scientific minds to have ever lived, Stephen Hawking certainly has one of the most inspirational and intellectually stimulating lives. Now in his 70s and still teaching everyday at Cambridge University, one of the world’s greatest thinkers has shown no signs of slowing down, making himself constantly available to his students. He’s also retained a great sense of humour and sharp wit regarding his near inability to move and communicate following his struggles with ALS.
He’s certainly lived a life worth documenting and chronicling, but the documentary Hawking, from director Stephen Finnigan, doesn’t feel like anything more than a scratching of the surface of Hawking’s greatness. Thanks to a having Hawking narrate a lot of his story in his own words, there’s a lot of good will towards the project, but it’s like what his most famous work – the best selling and groundbreaking A Brief History of Time –almost ended up being with publisher meddling: somewhat dumbed down and devoid of anything challenging.
From his early days spent as a hard partying and competitive university student studying an explanation for the Big Bang Theory to his recent notoriety in the public eye as the only rock star scientist next to Carl Sagan, Finnigan reminisces with Hawking about his accomplishments and struggles as his health worsened. But aside from almost cursory and passing nods to everything in his life that feel like bullet points instead of introspections, Hawking doesn’t really give the audience anything they couldn’t get from an online search of the man.
Instead, and despite Hawking showing remarkable candor with regard to his current unease in the public eye, there’s something somewhat exploitative about Finnigan’s work, especially in the late going when his first marriage begins to fall apart and his second marriage leads to potential spousal abuse charges against his new wife. The bits that talk about Hawking’s personal life are handled uneasily, but the bits about his vastly more intriguing professional life are almost inexcusably devoid of human drama or personality. Recreations of key moments in Hawking’s life are also unnecessarily overblown, using sometimes stock imagery (like shaky cameras to denote a tumble down the stairs or sunlight coming to rest atop a pew) and a jangly, unsubtle score. The emphasis here is in all the wrong places.
It’s certainly not a big screen documentary (although it will be played with a video introduction from Hawking himself when it screens at the Lightbox, which superfans should find worth it), and with PBS as one of the producers, it probably should have stayed there despite being slightly below their standards for this sort of fare. It could have passing appeal to anyone who knows nothing of the man, but it plays more like a low level, unambitious biography of a sports star: a parade of nothing more than statistics and snapshots.