Saturday, December 27, 2014
Movies about Smart Guys
No, not Wiseguys, that 1986 Brian DePalma blood-bath film. Smart guys. Really smart guys. 'Tis the season, it seems.
In recent days we've seen both The Theory of Everything, the film about physicist Stephen Hawking, and The Imitation Game, about mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing, whose efforts accelerated the end of World War II. Oh, and we also saw Interstellar, a film that required of its audience a bit more than Algebra I.
We liked all three films, but in both Theory and Imitation we were a tad disappointed that the filmmakers didn't trust the intelligence of the audience a little more. In neither film did we really learn too much about Hawking's or Turing's ideas--and what they mean (only in a cursory, superficial way). Now, I don't pretend to be able to understand much about what I just mentioned (I was an English major, remember? And for good reason!), but I've read, over the decades, a lot of popular books about the sciences--from Stephen Jay Gould to Hawking himself--and I could have handled more--a lot more--than these films provided. Both of them focused, more or less, on the personal lives of their protagonists, which, to me, were a lot less interesting that what was going on above their eyes.
Yes, Hawking has ALS and has persevered to a degree that most of us can barely comprehend; yes, the Brits persecuted Turing for his sexual orientation (forcing him to suicide)--and those are stories of importance and significance. But they also pale beside the intellectual lives of those guys.
Yet in Imitation, for example, we really learn nothing about Turing's early computer design. We see a bunch of complicated charts--and wires--and gizmos. But we don't really know what he's doing. What's behind it all. That, I think, is a major failure--and a lost opportunity to educate as well as entertain.
As Joyce pointed out to me as we were leaving Imitation, a film like Interstellar demanded far more of its audience than either Imitation or Theory.
And one final thought: As I've gotten older, I've become far more interested in the the lives of Nerds* than in those of Big Guys with Guns. Yes, I'll still go see Mark Wahlberg and kin in a thriller now and then, but a far more thrilling sight to me was Alan Turing, realizing he'd found the key to the Germans' Enigma code, sprinting with his fellow nerds back to the lab, where they discovered he was right--that they'd found the pathway leading the world out of yet another global conflict.
We do need to feature nerds more in the films (and in schools and in every other damn venue--and not in the Revenge of the Nerds fashion). But we need not just to recognize the gifted among us but we need to celebrate them; we need, in a way, to fall to our knees and to cry out our gratitude.
*Nerd, by the way, goes back to 1950 and Dr. Seuss ... If I Ran the Zoo.