It is June 1st, 2022, and a movie about the physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer is currently in production, directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Cillian Murphy as the titular character. I got excited about the movie just by seeing pictures of Murphy’s characterization. It looks good!
Because Oppenheimer is one of the historical figures I wrote about in my academic research, I am really curious about this film. Granted, it will focus on his time as the head of the Manhattan Project and not on his work on astrophysics, but still.
As a historian, I should add the warning that biopics are controversial. The romanticization of real people’s life and work and, in the case of scientists, biopics often distorts the public’s perception of science and scientific practices. It usually puts the scientists on a pedestal, distancing them from us, the audience. That’s one reason people get discouraged from thinking about science, with the illusion that it is something only geniuses can do.
On the other hand, as a writer, I think the use of poetic license to dramatize the life and work of a scientist is a celebration of their achievements. It is one of the most effective forms of science popularization and not to mention a great homage to all of the people whose contribution to science was undeniable. If some get discouraged, others get inspired by those examples.
Speaking of inspiration, inspired by the Oppenheimer movie, I thought it would be a great idea to compile a list of my favorite scientist (plus mathematicians) biopics and share it with you. So here are my top 5 biopics of brilliant minds.
5 - The theory of everything (Director: James Mash, 2014)
Stephen Hawking is one of the most recognizable scientists of all time. Not only because of his intellect–the man was incredible!–but also because his body could not catch up to his mind. Being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), his motor functions gradually decayed, eventually paralyzing him. His mind, however, expanded way further than his body. Hawking helped us to unveil some of the greatest secrets of our universe, including (but not limited to) our understanding of black holes.
In terms of inspiration, few could beat this tale to motivate people to make the most of their lives. Eddie Redmayne played Hawking to perfection, and he was awarded an Oscar for his performance. It is worth checking it out.
This movie isn’t higher on this list because of the long list of complaints about its historical inaccuracies.
4 - A beautiful mind (Director: Ron Howard, 2001)
If there is one biopic I did not mind getting heavy-handed with that poetic license I mentioned earlier, it was this one. It turned out to be a masterpiece! John Nash, a Nobel-prize winner mathematician played by Russell Crowe, had paranoid schizophrenia. His battle with this debilitating condition and his path toward his Nobel prize is told in such an enticing way I can forgive all of the historical inaccuracies.
The movie was also acclaimed by specialized critics and won the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress in the 2002 Oscars.
3 - The man who knew infinite (Director: Matthew Brown, 2015)
The story about Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, played beautifully by Dev Patel, is tragic, which sets it apart from the others on this list. The others have an inspirational tone characteristic of scientists’ biographical dramas. Ramanujan’s story, however, is not a hero’s tale.
A prodigy in Mathematics, Ramanujan was struggling to survive in India when he was invited to study at Cambridge under the famous mathematician G.H. Hardy. The movie tells the story of the prejudices he faced at Cambridge and his battle to adapt to this academic environment and England.
The hardships faced by Ramanujan as an immigrant forced to fit into a mold he wasn’t cut to are very relatable. I cannot recommend this film enough.
2 - Radioactive (Director: Marjane Satrapi, 2019)
If you asked me who of all people deserves a biopic, I would answer Marie Curie without hesitation. As a scientist, her discoveries literally changed the world, and she died because of them. That alone is sufficient to earn her the title of one of the greatest minds that ever lived. But to add to the challenge, she was a woman doing science in an epoch where the prejudice was overwhelmingly discouraging. Few could juggle the academic stress with societal hindrance as she did. Few could, but no one should.
Rosamund Pike proved once again she is an incredible actress with her rendition of Mrs. Curie. The movie depicts her private and work-life with her husband, Pierre Curie, who shared a Nobel Prize with her. The story continues after the death of her husband, also addressing her daughter’s achievements.
As far as inspirational tales go, this story has a double weight. Not only was Mrs. Curie an exceptional scientist, but also an exceptional woman. For me in particular, it is moving to relate to the struggles this combination brings.
1 - Hidden Figures (Director: Theodore Melfi, 2016)
This one is a combo: three romanticized biographies in one movie. And it is excellent!
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe play Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, respectively; three African American women working for NASA during the Space Race.
Although the movie was admittedly heavy-handed in its dramatization, Mary Jackson was indeed NASA's first female African-American engineer, Dorothy Vaughan was NASA's first African-American supervisor, and Katherine Johnson played a crucial part in the calculations of trajectories for the Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle missions.
I saw this movie in the theaters and literally ugly cried at the end. It was embarrassing but also proof that this film moved me. As I mentioned, the story about Marie Curie was double-weighted on the inspirational aspect, and we get to multiply this by three with Hidden Figures. That is why it is my number one biopic on scientists.
That's it for today, folks! Have you watched any of these movies? What did you think of them? Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments. Share your own list of biopics with us!
Maybe some of you are thinking, where is Imitation Game? Well, I could write a whole blog post on why the movie is not good. If it is something you want to read, just say the word, and I'll do it.