During the live Q and A which followed this documentary on Professor Stephen Hawking’s life, director Stephen Finnigan described the titular cosmologist in three words: ‘inspiring, determined and funny.’ Finnigan’s documentary achieves such an insight into the life and mind of the world’s most famous contemporary scientist, giving a view of the man not always accessible to the public. However, the film also addresses the question of whether Stephen Hawking is universally known for his discoveries; his voice in physics, as it were, or because of his physical disability.
It is thanks to the film’s documentary format that this issue comes across so poignantly. Finnigan employs a mixture of fly on the wall surveillance of Hawking’s everyday life, interviews with close friends and family, and brief explanations of the theories which have established Hawking in the scientific world. However, as the documentary proves, it is not just the scientific world in which Hawking is recognised, but the everyday world of pop-culture. Making cameo appearances in programmes like The Simpsons, Star Trek and, more recently, The Big Bang Theory, Stephen Hawking’s illness has, of course, lent an added, if dubious, “distinction” in the contemporary media obsessed as it is with celebrities. The inclusion of clips from these television shows demonstrates the paradox of the limitations and liberation that this disease has inflicted upon Hawking; he is held back physically but continues to work and is able to use his acquired fame to help advance his theories and promote an interest in science among the masses. It is for reasons such as these, and documented as they are in the film, that explain why Finnigan sees Professor Stephen Hawking as an inspirational figure, and Hawking communicates this sentiment effectively. Finnigan’s fly on the wall filming also demonstrates the other side of the paradox of Hawking’s disabled persona , as everywhere the scientist goes he is met by cameras, whether these belong to avid fans, members of the public or, problematically, also from the film crew of this documentary. These scenes would suggest the prominence of Hawking’s image over his words and imply that it is his disability, rather than his theories, that he is best known for. Finnigan rescues Hawking’s communication by providing a continuous voice-over, written by Hawking himself. The physicist’s humorous anecdotes help make the film the masterpiece that it is, showing the person behind the scientific discoveries and without the bondage of his disease. This narration, along with the inclusion of Hawking’s theories, helps to distinguish the voice from the image of Hawking. Tragically, Hawking has not had the use of his own voice in over twenty-eight years and his only means of communication is through a synthesiser controlled by one muscle in his cheek and by the blinking of his right eye. A picture of Hawking’s determination is presented through interviews with people who know and love Hawking. This is the most magical part of the film as the viewer comes to realise that these people speak through and for Hawking , giving him both a voice that is more than a computer synthesis and an image surpassing that of a man in a wheelchair.
All in all, it seems hard to fault Finnigan’s documentary in terms of film-making and biography. It appears that the film Hawking, like the man himself, is funny, inspiring and determined, proving to the world that, disabled or not, Hawking is a genius.