HAVING DIRECTED the best ongoing documentary series in film history (Seven Up, now past its sixth septennial installment), Michael Apted can afford to coast a little. First came the 1999 Bond blockbuster The World Is Not Enough, and now, he's made a small science-oriented doc with roots right here in Seattle. Produced by Paul Allen's Clear Blue Sky Productions, Me & Isaac Newton is an admirably serious, engaging, and personality-based look at the work of science, as expressed in the lives of seven disparate scientists. It's intended as a sequel or companion piece to Apted and Clear Blue Sky's 1997 documentary about artists, Inspirations, making the whole enterprise seem like a big-screen counterpart to Nova, where Newton more properly belongs.
ME & ISAAC NEWTON
directed by Michael Apted runs November 17-23 at Varsity
Each of the gifted, personable subjects would certainly warrant hour-long treatment on TV. As with his Seven Up protagonists, Apted wisely concentrates on their backstories, on the autobiographical details that somehow, often improbably, give rise to scientific curiosity and achievement. In keeping with his generally hands-off approach to documentary making, there's no omniscient narration or interrogation, only the seven figures recounting their pasts and interests.
Among them are an artificial intelligence robot-maker, an ice-skating theoretical physicist, a MacArthur "genius" award-winning primatologist, a linguist who writes for The New York Times, a British cancer specialist, and an Indian environmental physicist. (Needless to say, they're much, much smarter than we are.) All would make fascinating cocktail party guests, but it's Nobel Prize-winning pharmaceutical chemist Gertrude Elion you'd want to settle next to on the couch. "I've always had to have proof," declares the PhD-less octogenarian, who did important work in immune system suppressant drugs. A driven second-generation immigrant, she explains how deaths affecting her own life helped guide her choice of careers.
Without rising to the level of Errol Morris' 1997 Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which inevitably serves as a yardstick, Newton does try to enliven its talking heads format with animation, film clips, and occasional bits of visual fancy (Gus Van Sant- like clouds roll by in time-lapse grandeur). Yet the film succumbs to a certain dry, reverential, PBS-y quality, making it seem more like high-school science field trip assignment than movie. Still, even if you're past being inspired to a life of research, the seven narratives generally hold your interest. Since Apted knows better than to neglect beginning-middle-end storytelling, he puts a coda on at least one tale.
Discussing childhood leukemia survival rates, which her research helped improve, Elion declares emphatically, "Now, it's 80 percent." Audiences will share in her satisfaction. It's a beautiful number.