A Brief History of Stephen Hawking: Errol Morris’ Poetic Portrait of a Scientific Mind

hawking

Photo credit: David Martínez

Because Stephen Hawking’s stature as a revered scientist and intellectual has long since turned into an apotheosis, in which Hawking’s name is set beside the immortals of scientific inquiry, namely Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, it’s hard to believe that Errol Morris’ documentary treatment of the legendary cosmologist, A Brief History of Time, has been out for twenty-four years.

Released in 1991, A Brief History of Time appeared after the enthralling, not to mention controversial, The Thin Blue Line (1988), which I watched numerous times. A police officer is gunned down during a traffic stop, a man is convicted, and unanswered questions remain years after Randall Adams has been sent to prison. What made Morris’ noir documentary so mesmerizing was the way in which his subjects told their stories in their own words, narratives that were interspersed with images of the actual sites and evidence, complemented with reenactments and a hypnotic soundtrack composed by Philip Glass.

Morris somehow transfers this aesthetic from his film about a crime story to his film about Hawking and the origins of the universe. However, what Morris created is not based on the popular science book that Hawking published in 1988 to worldwide acclaim, but rather Morris’ A Brief History of Time is about the man behind the ideas that have changed our view of the universe. More specifically, through Morris’ lens Hawking is seen as an ordinary person, whose genius is mixed with a host of character flaws, which Hawking overcomes as he finds his passion for cosmology, a dedication to overcoming a debilitating disease, and the desire that only true love can ignite. All of which is complicated by the testimony of an array of Hawking’s extended family, friends, colleagues, and students—not to mention another beguiling Philip Glass soundtrack.

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