Particle Fever (Abramorama/BOND360, NR)

particleFever 75Odd that this team got together in the first place to make a documentary about what seems to be a somewhat difficult subject, but they’re more than equal to the task, and the resulting film is a delight.

Particle-Fever 500

Though I seem to have no real aptitude for it, I’m not the type of person who “isn’t interested” in science (if such a thing is really possible—seems like you kind of have to be in some capacity), so when the Higgs Boson particle was discovered (proven to exist?—forgive my science-noob language here) in 2012 I was interested in what it meant, but really more just puzzled than anything. Articles in the New York Times and trips to Wikipedia led me to little more understanding of just what the Higgs Boson was than when I started. But while I may not speak science language, I do speak movie language, so when the new documentary Particle Fever started making the rounds on the festival circuit and was reportedly good, I looked forward to seeing it, if for no other reason to help me to understand this huge leap forward in the field of physics that I only very tenuously understood.

In this regard, Particle Fever is the film I want it to be—it’s easy to follow, makes things accessible enough for laymen, and doesn’t shy away from the complex stuff for those who see the movie and know a lot more about the subject than me. The film mostly traces the years 2008 until 2012 at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, where the Large Hadron Collider, a five-story machine built to collide protons, is located. It primarily focuses on six scientists who work at CERN, all eloquent speakers of English (though not all native speakers; there are physicists at CERN from every part of the world), charismatic, young-ish, and perhaps more physically attractive than the media would generally lead you to believe a real-life physicist would be. The filmmakers had literally thousands of workers at CERN they could have followed, and so we can assume that the six we get were cherry-picked for the different facets of their collective camera-friendliness, but all the same they’re a likeable bunch, and we see the discovery of the Higgs Boson through their eyes.

Of course the narrative this film follows has a pretty definite ending, and one that can’t really surprise us, given that I’d imagine that anyone who goes to see this movie will already know that the Higgs Boson was found and was big news a few years back. Though not chapterized, the film is broken into three pretty distinct parts: the finalization of the building of the Large Hadron Collider, the initial testing of it and a down period for repairs after a first attempt ends in helium leakage, and then, after it’s up and running, the period where the physicists at CERN study the results of the collisions, with the film ending more or less on the press conference-style announcement of the finding of the Higgs Boson. For me, the second part of the film is the least interesting, and the third part of the film is the hardest to follow (that’s when it goes the deepest down the rabbit hole in terms of theoretical physics), which facts might sound somewhat damning, but really it means that the film starts off at its most easy to follow and interesting, which makes it easier to keep up with as it gets slower and denser. It’s about as good a structure for a film like this that one could hope for.

The filmmaking team behind Particle Fever is kind of an odd one, in that the most recognizable name is not the director’s, Mark Levinson, but the editor’s, Walter Murch. Murch is one of the highest-regarded editors of (usually narrative) films working today, having worked on a bunch of Francis Ford Coppola movies (he won an Oscar for editing Apocalypse Now), The English Patient, etc. Murch also sometimes works in sound design, which is Levinson’s background as well—he’s done ADR work on all kinds of interesting stuff, like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Se7en. Odd that this team got together in the first place to make a documentary about what seems to be a somewhat difficult subject, but they’re more than equal to the task, and the resulting film is a delight.  | Pete Timmermann

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