For the last 30 years, physicist and world’s smartest man Stephen Hawking has blurred the lines between scientific discovery and pop cultural phenomenon; at this point in life, you’ve most likely either read his breakthrough book A Brief History of Time or you’ve meant to for years. You’ve seen him guest on the Simpson’s and Star Trek: The Next Generation. If science has a rock star, then there’s no one else that can fill the role besides Professor Hawking. All this, from a man whose body is so crippled with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) that he is, at this point, little more than a brain trapped by his body.
A new documentary that premiered at SXSW this year delves into the life of the world’s most famous physicist and offers an intensely intimate portrait of one of the greatest minds of our (or any) generation. Hawking, directed by Stephen Finnigan, takes you deep inside the life and times of the good professor and allows you to see behind the wheelchair and into the desires of a man who was given 2 years to live over four decades ago.
Told in his own voice, that instantly recognizable electronic drone, viewers are shown a side of Hawking that we’ve never seen before. We see the struggles of a man who has no choice but to be spoon fed his morning coffee and even champagne at a party in his honor at Oxford University. While there’s nothing terribly shocking about these revelations—because of course he’s spoon fed his beverages, how else could he drink?—it’s much different to actually see it up close and personal. Here is a man who has changed the way scientists view the universe in ways not seen since Albert Einstein first proposed relativity almost a century ago; he is trapped inside of his own body which long ago betrayed him and can no longer so much as breath without the assistance of a machine. The only muscle, in fact, that he still has any sort of control over is a tiny muscle in his cheek, with which he controls the computer that has long since become his voice and, therefore, his sole means of communication to the world.
Viewers are taken through his entire life, guided by Hawking’s narration, from infancy to present day. Startling are the pictures of a bright eyed and smiling youth in his first years at Cambridge when juxtaposed with his crippled, twisted frame of today. Even in his youth, peers regarded him as one of the greatest minds they’ve ever encountered. Indeed, his brilliance is impossible to ignore, as is his personal magnetism. Despite his condition and appearance, Professor Hawking remains one of the most charming and hilarious people one could have the pleasure of encountering.
At no point in his story does Professor Hawking seek pity. Indeed, even during the early years of his disease, as he went from able bodied crew captain to wheel chair bound intellectual, any sense of lingering darkness is outshined completely by his tenacity and brilliance. Despite losing all control of his muscles, he still formed the theory of black holes that scientists use today when attempting to discover and explain this bizarre universe we call home.
Beyond being just a life portrait of the man—an autobiography, of sorts, thanks to his narration and intimate access into his personal life—Hawking is a portrait of the unending depths of the human spirit and capability. With everything working against the professor, including time (ironic, given his area of study and expertise) he still managed to write the biggest selling layman’s physics book of all time while simultaneously changing our very understanding of the natural world.
In that way, Hawking (both the man and the movie) becomes a true inspiration for both the individual and for humanity in general. No obstacle, internal or external, should be taken as insurmountable to the person who dares to dream and, beyond that, dares to persevere. Always moving, at times hilarious, Hawking is a beautiful portrayal of a man who refused (and still refuses) to back down in the face of adversity.