Mark Levinson, director of the absorbing documentary Particle Fever, had a day job that fed right into his film's origins: He was a physicist (as is co-producer David Kaplan, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University). That makes him uniquely qualified to convey the staggering complexity of experimental physics without boring an audience of laymen. Shot over a five-year period, Particle Fever follows the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, designed to demonstrate the existence of the subatomic Higgs boson — the so-called "God particle" possibly providing a key to the Big Bang and the very origin of matter.
The movie could have been as dry as a NOVA episode, and indeed its weakest moments carry an arid whiff of PBS infotainment. For the most part, though, Particle Fever both captures and evokes the human tension behind the experiment. As a friend who teaches high school science puts it, the film is as much about fever as particles.
Narrow minds killed off plans to build the Large Hadron Collider in the U.S. Instead, the vast machine was built in Switzerland, with contributions from 10,000 scientists in 100 countries. Slickly directed in a meat-and-potatoes style, Particle Fever centers on six of those scientists. Interestingly, two are political refugees; Greek-American physicist Savas Dimopoulos even makes the connection explicit, saying he was shaped by the political debates around ownership of Cyprus in the '60s. He grew disenchanted with the push and pull of rhetoric and wanted objective evidence.
Outlining that pursuit, aided by the expert cutting of master editor Walter Murch, Levinson shifts back and forth between the experiment and portraits of those involved. He has a fine eye for leavening detail, such as the rap song performed at the party celebrating the collider's launch. Without pressing his subjects, he brings out their inner drive, which heightens the drama in their search for the Higgs boson particle.
The subject matter of Particle Fever might seem arcane, but the film explains it in a lucid fashion that's crisply accessible. Granted, some of Levinson's attempts to jazz up the presentation with computer-animated graphics seem more confusing than dazzling (although some Colorado brownies might help). But what makes the film resonate is that the experiment works as a metaphor for any passionate pursuit of knowledge, whether in science or art. That's understood by Levinson and his subjects — among them Fabiola Gianotti, who has degrees in music and physics and sees how they relate.
The movie draws a similar comparison between the value of noncommercial activities. (In the movie's final moments, Levinson even interpolates footage from Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams.) At a Q&A session, a scientist fields a question from an economist about the project's material value. He replies that it can't yet be measured: Such projects may not make money, but they help us understand the universe. Except for the fact it's proving a left-field hit in limited release, the same can be said for Particle Fever — which leads to more questions than definitive answers, yet leaves us with renewed eagerness to ask and seek.
Paul Sheldon, professor of physics at Vanderbilt University, will discuss new developments in elementary particle physics after the 7 p.m. screening Friday, March 14, at The Belcourt.