The Person as Event: Errol Morris, Stephen Hawking and ‘A Brief History of Time’


In the interview that Errol Morris provides for the new Criterion release of his A Brief History of Time, he confesses that he will never make a film as “romantic” as this profile of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

In much of Morris’s work, whether his depiction of a wrongfully accused murder suspect in The Thin Blue Line or throughout his feature-length interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for The Fog of War, he uses the camera to interrogate the subject. He looks into them, through them and past them in order to get to the heart of how a person makes sense of their own story about themselves. It’s not some capital-T “Truth” that he seeks, but rather the process by which knowledge comes into being. The two-way mirror-designed semi-teleprompter that he uses for interviews, aptly named the Interrotron, often accomplishes much of this work for him. He has often spoken of interviewees who make a revelatory offhand comment simply because he let’s a long pause linger as subjects gaze at the camera and at him.

But with Hawking, Morris encounters a subject immune to his typical devices of interrogation. While filming A Brief History of Time, Hawking communicated through a speech-generating device that, while time-consuming, allowed Hawking to eloquently represent his complex ideas with more accessibility, depth and wit than one would ever think a robotic-sounding device would allow. With a brilliant and deliberate mind such as Hawking, there is no such thing as an offhand comment.

And it’s this realization that makes this documentary not only an inherently romantic depiction of its subject but also a brilliant work of filmmaking. Morris is less interested in translating Hawking’s ideas directly to screen and more interested in how Hawking’s inspiring biography allowed those ideas to become manifest. As with much of Morris’s work, A Brief History of Time is about how it is we come to know what we know. But in the case of Hawking, the driving question provides a chance to explore how a seemingly infinite mind came into being from a tragically finite body.

While his family and colleagues (never named until the credits) give first person, interrotron-style interviews, Hawking himself is variously framed in a makeshift home office on a London set by cinematographer John Bailey. Hawking’s words, via excerpts from his written work and interviews with Morris, hover above both live action shots and illustrations of his ideas, accentuated with yet another hypnotic score by Philip Glass. In contrast to other feature-length personal portraits like Mr. Death, The Fog of War and the upcoming The Unknown Known, A Brief History of Time rarely brings us face to face with Hawking, instead preferring to give us illustrative yet indirect access to his mind and psyche through his words and the words of others. While many of us will never fully understand what it is like to be trapped inside one’s own body, what Morris seeks to illustrate here is what it might be like to live an expansive life of the mind — one that is rarely bounded by one’s limited placement and instead regularly travels the extent of the cosmos, from big bangs to black holes to the horrific-sounding big crunch.

As a documentary about complex ideas, A Brief History of Time is remarkably accessible. It’s easy for the uninitiated to understand Hawking’s sizable impact in the world of science, especially when accompanied by detailed illustrations and a Philip Glass score. But this film is as much a biography as it is a journey through scientific theory. Morris sees these two aspects as one in the same: it’s impossible to separate the ideas from the person who produced them. As such, A Brief History of Time portrays the person as event.

If Morris’s films are works created toward investigating the nature of truth, then they can be placed on a spectrum from Events to People. His Event-centric films lie on one end, where Standard Operating Procedure and The Thin Blue Line place consequential occurrences as the film’s frame for investigation. On the other end are his most People-centric films, which often focus on portraits of unique work throughout a lifetime; Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control would be most exemplary here. The rest of Morris’s work lies on a spectrum balancing the roles of people and events.

None of his films see the two as mutually exclusive. All of them examine people’s decision-making and complex thought processes through which events come to pass. But A Brief History of Time belongs right in the middle, where the person and the event are one in the same. Within Hawking’s biography — his intellectual stagnation at Oxford, his painstaking fight with ALS, his first marriage — is the making of Stephen Hawking’s mind. And through Stephen Hawking’s mind lies access to the grandest and most consequential of events: the origins and limitations of the known universe.

At one point in the documentary, Hawking’s mother laments the tragedy of his ALS but takes comfort in the fact that, for him, the mind is a rich place to live. She and several other interviewees suggest that his near-paralysis is precisely what accelerated his intellectual work. The film even suggests that, once prevented from being able to speak easily through words and through writing, he was perhaps able to think outside of the means that typically limit human understanding.

While Hawking and all other figures in this documentary use words to express themselves, A Brief History of Time is, in part, about how the tyranny of human language limits our ability to truly comprehend the grander implications of being. As yet another investigation of the nature of knowledge, no other film by Morris has illustrated so starkly how difficult it is for us to really know things via our common tools — words, eyesight, the inherent limitations of the human body, etc. Perhaps this is why Morris states (in the aforementioned Criterion interview) that finding “truth” is an elusive goal in documentary filmmaking. Instead, we should think about nonfiction thusly:

You don’t judge a documentary film on whether it tells the truth. You judge it on whether it attempts to find the truth and makes you think about what the relationship between the movie and the truth might be. Truth is never given to us on a platter, like “Here, behold the truth.” It gives you things to think about, to reflect on. It puts you in a strange space if the job is done correctly, about the nature of what we’re hearing and what it really means, and how it relates to the world.

A Brief History of Time is now available on Dual Format DVD/Blu-ray from Criterion.