‘Particle Fever’ Perfectly Captures an Exhilarating Time for Science

particle fever doc

I’ve been asked not to review Particle Fever, which is currently screening at the New York Film Festival under the Applied Science umbrella of its Spotlight on Documentary program. The reason being that I watched the film via DVD screener, the quality of which may not be at the level of the theatrical version being seen by those actually able to attend the fest. Well, it looked good enough to me (trying to avoid hyperbole here), but I understand.

So, this is not a review. But I did want to post a little praise for the doc anyway, because I really enjoyed it. I didn’t understand about 75% of it, but that’s not the point. Particle Fever is not necessarily a film about what the Large Hadron Collider does or might prove or disprove. It’s a film about the people involved in its creation and/or with the scientific theories it will impact, such as the young post-doc Monica Dunford and the patient physicist Savas Dimopoulos, who’s been waiting three decades to test out his theories, and even the great hero of particle physics himself, Peter Higgs. And as this, it’s among the very best portrayals of passion and excitement ever put on screen (dang it, the hyperbole slipped).

There is a very good attempt to inform the audience of what the LHC is and does, and what the Higgs boson is and what its discovery means for our understanding of the universe (or multiverses, if it were) and the origin of matter, and other theories and laws of physics. The graphics and animation used to help illustrate this science is exceptional — my first thought in spite of my attempts to not think of awards while watching movies is that MK12 deserves a Cinema Eye nomination for their work here. Thanks to them, I definitely got some of it, but there’s complex stuff there that may just always be incomprehensible to me. Or won’t make sense until I watch the film a few more times.

Particle Fever is hardly here to instruct us to become employees of CERN. What it does really wonderfully, though, is capture how thrilling it must have been to be a CERN employee (and anyone else in the field) leading up to the moment when the super-collider was switched on. Director Mark Levinson, a former physicist himself who primarily works now in ADR for Hollywood movies, follows six characters, including scientists on both the theoretical and the experimental sides of physics (admittedly I never considered there being a distinction), over a number of years. We not only see and hear about their love for physics and specific ideas, but we start to really feel it. We care deeply right alongside them what’s going to and what does happen, even if we don’t quite grasp the details of what’s happening inside the LHC.

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You have to expect that this film is perfectly cut together, too, given that it’s edited by the legendary Walter Murch — his first time working on a doc in this capacity I believe, though he’s done sound for Gimme Shelter and sound mixing for Crumb and Seeing in the Dark. The expectation is met. While some of the best editors in the world are those who work in nonfiction, Murch’s hand is still remarkable, his pacing electrifying. A number of times I thought about how the film was moving forward better than I’d have thought a doc on this subject could. To say it’s never dull is to make an observation that doesn’t even feel relevant given just how compelling and appealing it all is. A lot of documentary filmmakers should study Particle Fever for how to make any subject matter or story play out like it’s the most riveting thing the audience has ever encountered.

While watching this film and being amazed at how captivated I was in spite of not always knowing what’s going on, I thought of two things in particular. One is that the science here might as well be like a documentary MacGuffin, something that drives the story but doesn’t have to be understood. This should be the case with more documentary subjects, though I know it won’t catch on since many still want a doc to be informative.

The other thing I thought of is a recent story in the New York Times on Frederick Wiseman’s NYFF entry, At Berkeley, which noted that he wasn’t sure whether or not to include the scene of a lecture on dark energy, which he didn’t understand at all. But he says he wound up including it so the audience can feel the same disorientation he felt (admittedly I did), whereas with Particle Fever we’re made to feel as if, whether we understand the science or not, we’re anything but disoriented. We’re there, tensely experiencing a moment in the history and progress of science as no news outlet could possibly report, and as no textbook of the future will possibly relay.

And as if the movie wasn’t already winning, near the end there’s a nice tie-in to Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which completely sealed the deal for me. Hopefully Particle Fever will be out in theaters soon.

This review was originally published during the New York Film Festival on October 2, 2013.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.