“Particle Fever” would be compelling enough in its own right as a you-are-there documentary that follows the leading scientists of the Large Hadron Collider project as they move inexorably toward the experiments that will reveal whether the Higgs Boson (the God particle) exists or not. But when you factor in that the film was produced and directed by nuclear physicists with uncanny filmmaking abilities, including a knack for including graphics and animation that makes the most fearsomely abstract things concrete, you are in for a rare film-going experience, as exciting in its own way as the class trip I took to the Hayden Planetarium when I was in junior high school.
A hadron is a composite of subatomic particles (quarks) that have mostly been identified, except for the one that is at the hub: the boson. It is commonly referred to as the Higgs boson, after the British physicist who theorized its existence back in 1964. Don’t ask me to try to explain this (as if I could) but the boson is viewed as the critical sine qua non for the creation of the universe. As the film barrels along at an exciting pace, we learn that if the experiment fails to prove its existence, some physicists will conclude that reality consists of multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics. While that sounds like a good plot for a Star Trek episode, some of the physicists interviewed in the film—including uber-physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who is a multi-universe adherent, fear that it will make the task of a unified theory of matter impossible.
The film explains that there are two kinds of physicists, theoretical and experimental. Both came together to make the Hadron Collision work. The collider itself is one of the greatest engineering feats of modern history, consisting of a seventeen mile magnetized tunnel in a seven-story building beneath the ground in Switzerland that is designed to hurl subatomic particles through the tunnel in opposite directions like greyhounds on performance enhancing drugs until a switch is turned on to make them collide in four separate locations in the tunnel to be examined by high-powered computers networked around the world.
The film consists largely of physicists at work either in the US or in Switzerland putting the finishing touches on the eagerly awaited experiments and explaining to laypeople like us in the movie theater what it is they are trying to accomplish. Their sense of excitement is infectious, especially so from Monica Dunford, a startlingly young woman who works on the experimental side. You see her with a hardhat on her head tightening bolts and connecting wires on the mammoth collider in the final stages before countdown. When she is not at work, she is off running marathons or mountain climbing. Leave your stereotypes of nerds at the door. All of the principals are exceedingly well adjusted and don’t take themselves too seriously.
One of the key interviewees is David Kaplan, a 56-year-old theoretical physicist who held research positions at the U. of Chicago and Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center. He looks about 30 years younger and wears his hair in a ponytail. He is also the producer of the film.
The director is Mark Levinson who has a PhD in particle physics from U. Cal Berkeley. He was the producer/director/writer of a narrative film titled “Prisoner of Time”, about the lives of dissident artists after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As compelling as the interviews are, the film reaches an even higher level with the graphics and animation developed by MK12, a studio that did the FX for “Stranger than Fiction”, a comedy starring Will Farrell. Their talents are served better here.
When asked how he made the transition from particle physics to filmmaking, Levinson replied in a way that reminds us of how inadequate CP Snow’s notion of “Two Cultures” was:
The transition actually seemed remarkably straightforward to me. What entranced me about physics was the profound beauty and elegance of the theories, and the magic and mystery in the fact that abstract symbols encoded deep truths about the universe. I made the transition to film when I recognized an alternate avenue for exploring the world around us, in the human dimension, that also seemed mysterious and magical. For many years, I harbored the hope that I could find some project that could weave together the two seemingly disparate strands of my life. The start-up of the Large Hadron Collider provided the perfect combination of both a profound scientific and human endeavor. One of the characters in Particle Fever speculates, “Why do we do science? Why do we do art? It is the things that are not directly necessary for survival that make us human.”
“Particle Fever” opens tomorrow at the Film Forum in New York.
Like “Particle Fever”, “The Iran Job” benefits from an appealing protagonist—in this case a 28-year-old journeyman (as he frankly describes himself) basketball player from the Virgin Islands named Kevin Sheppard who was not good enough to make to the NBA but good enough to work professionally overseas, including Iran.
He has signed a contract to play for Shiraz AS for one year on a tryout basis. If he produces results, they will renew his contract. Since American basketball players are so highly regarded, they will pay him double the going rate. He and a 7-foot Serbian named Zoran “Z” Milicic, hired to play center, are the maximum number of foreign players allowed on Iranian professional basketball teams.
The style of “The Iran Job” is almost DIY and consists mostly of the filmmakers following Sheppard around as he practices, leads the team as a point guard as they advance their way toward the playoffs, and develops a friendship with three young Iranian women who chafe at the restrictions put on them by a paternalistic clerical state. When they are sitting around Sheppard’s apartment making small talk and teasing each other, the women have to go to the bathroom and hide whenever there is a knock on the door since they might be arrested for un-Islamic behavior. When they drive around with him, they risk getting busted by the morality police who have the power to investigate whether they are up to no good. They also had to put up with a temporary ban on women attending sporting events. No wonder the three women became activists in the Green Movement.
Throughout it all, Sheppard remains an extremely likable and self-effacing character, exchanging high fives with a merchant who says he likes Black people and used to smoke pot when he lived in the US. Without being prompted, the merchant breaks into “’Everythings Gonna Be Alright”—a Bob Marley song.
The film is an eloquent statement about the need to stop demonizing Iranians and to finally put an end to a system that is as restrictive toward women in its way as foot binding. During one of their bull sessions, one of the women insists that Islam has nothing to do with keeping women in their place. It is a clerical dictatorship speaking in the name of Islam that is at fault.
As an indication of what a gifted filmmaker is capable of, director Till Schauder (his wife Sara Nodjoumi, an Iranian-American, produced) told Indiewire how he filmed under obviously difficult conditions:
Journalist visas were denied so we had to shoot under the radar. We decided it was safer for me to go on my own, entering as a German tourist. I packed an HDV camera – small enough for an unassuming backpack. If I got into trouble I could say I’m just a tourist filming the sites. I used that line a few times until (before the presidential election) I was detained. Shooting like this was challenging. I didn’t have the best equipment, nor a crew. But it was a blessing in disguise, and crucial for building trust and intimacy with the film’s subjects.
It is so interesting that someone who has something to say can be ten times as interesting using a camera that probably cost less than one minutes worth of production on some of the offal that earned prizes on Sunday night at the Academy Awards.
“The Iran Job” is available from http://www.filmmovement.com, the Netflix for the cognoscenti.