Sunday, March 2, 2014

Mark Levinson/David Kaplan's PARTICLE FEVER: Physics made moving, important, inspiring & fun


If you, like me, too often find yourself angry and depressed upon finishing a documentary film, no matter how well-conceived and -executed it may be, nor whether its subject matter tackles the environment (Last Call at the Oasis), politics/politicians (The Best Government Money Can Buy?), corporate malfeasance (Blackfish) or plain and simple(minded) and seemingly everlasting injustice (West of Memphis), then do let me recommend a new documentary that may very well leave you floating a few feet above the ground.

Instead of stupid, nasty and venal politicians and corporate shills bent on lining their own pockets and letting the rest of the world go to rot, in PARTICLE FEVER, the thrilling and joyous new documentary about -- yes! -- physics, physicists and the Higgs Boson particle, director Mark Levinson (shown at right) and producer/ performer-in-the-film David Kaplan (below, left), both physicists and now filmmakers, show us folk from all over the world and sometimes from countries you would hardly imagine working together (Iran and Israel, Russia and the USA) doing exactly that in order to unlock the mysteries of being and the universe.

This movie will, as few others I've seen, make you proud of the human race -- or at least a small part of it: those scientists who are able to put aside some of the innate negative qualities we humans all possess in order to do something worthwhile for the world. What this entails is, among other things, constructing what we're told is the largest machine ever built, a 7-story tall LHC (that's "Large Hadron Collider," which is shown below while in construction, and further below when finished).

This LHC may strike you, as it did me, like something belonging to one of those mad scientists seen in an early James Bond movie. Except that, unlike those gorgeously pristine set pieces, which those dastardly villains are going to use to conquer the world, this one looks rather "home-made."

We meet some of the folk who've designed and/or made the LHC and will now use it to try to prove the existence of the Higgs Boson particle (more popularly known -- and rather stupidly, I think -- as the "god particle," which set journalists' hearts aflutter back around 2008 or 09, when word of this project reached the media). Back then, some naysayers warned that if scientists used this great machine, it could bring about a sort of black hole that would swallow the world. Well, they did, and it didn't.

The point here (part of it anyway) is to see if physicists can "find" and sort of quantify this Higgs Boson particle, which up to now had been "theorized" but not proven. How they try to do this and what they achieve becomes the meat of the movie, which introduces us to a number of interesting, gifted, and pretty charming "workers" who are collaborating on the project and are happy to share their input. (That's Italy's Fabiola Gianotti, speaking with Kaplan, above, and America's Monica Dunford, emerging from the floor, below.)

Because Levinson and Kaplan are both physicists, as well as -- considering the results they achieve in this movie -- good filmmakers, they manage to make all the theory and practice shown and explained pretty understandable to us peons in the world of science. They also lard their film with enough "human interest" and interesting human beings to keep us attentive and engaged.

Beginning in 2007, they take us up to 2012, when what needs to happen at last does. Along the way, however, we get everything from a little politics (there was actually a project similar to this one here in the U.S. and we see how "seriously" certain members of our Congress -- Republicans, of course -- took that project) to a little history of our participants, some physics theory and the run-up to the big day that will show the world something hoped for... or perhaps completely not: order vs chaos. (That's too simple, I know -- but then, I'm no scientist.)

The filmmakers mange to create some genuine suspense as the climax approaches, even as they are also making would-be, possible physicists of us all. I found myself realizing how incredibly "uncurious" I have been through most of my life, and then grateful for how very curious were these many scientists. Mostly though, I think you'll come away from this wonderful little movie feeling gratitude that these people from all over the world could come together to effect a project like this one -- leaving behind their own country's crass and crappy politicians stewing in their smelly, fermented juices -- to help science make some real progress.
(In the final section of the film, we get a nod to Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, along with the thought that perhaps our physicists are the cave painters of today -- thus beautifully equating the importance of art and science and society's enormous need for them both.)

In the very classy credit sequence for this film, you may notice names like Walter Murch -- yes, that Walter Murch -- as editor) and Robert Miller (for music), both of whose work adds extra luster to this captivating documentary. Particle Fever, from Abramorama and Bond 360 and running 99 minutes, opens this Wednesday, March 5, in New York City for a two-week exclusive run at Film Forum. In the days and weeks to come, it will open all across the country. To view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, simply click here.

NOTE: In-Person Events at Film Forum: 
Wednesday, March 5, 6:00 show--Director Mark Levinson 
    and Producer David Kaplan with physicists from the film 
Friday, March 7, 8:00 show--Mark Levinson 
Saturday, March 8, 3:15 show--Mark Levinson 
with physicists from the film

6 comments:

Penny Jackson said...

This may be the most wonderful documentary ever made about science, scientists and our faith in science. Thank you for your review.
Pamela Brandt Jackson

James van Maanen said...

And thank you, Penny/Pamela, for taking the time to comment. You must have seen this film at some earlier screening...? In any case, I am so pleased that you found it to be this wonderful. I hope many others will, too.

Matt said...

"Republicans, of course"

1993 Congress had Democrat majorities in both the House and the Senate. Additionally, the President at that time was a Democrat. The leader of the effort to defund the project in the House, who was proud of his success, was Democrat Jim Slattery.

The filmmakers chose two clips of Republicans while leaving all those facts out. You accepted the propaganda at face value.

James van Maanen said...

Thanks for correcting me (and the filmmakers), Matt. If what you say is true, they should post some kind of correction/apology when the DVD or streaming version appears....

Matt said...

Thank you for acknowledging my post and publishing it. That speaks highly to your integrity.

James van Maanen said...

If you take the time to comment, Matt, I should at least post it. I hope the filmmakers get wind of this, too, as some kind of acknowledgment from them would be appropriate.

I do have an anti-Republican bias, however, which only grows worse as that party leads us further toward destruction via its recalcitrance, stupidity and embrace of the values of the one per cent. I grew up during a time when Republicans were somewhat different and there was much more common ground to be found. These days I mostly just despair.