By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood March 14, 2014 at 2:04PM
Mark Levinson's "Particle Fever" is the first great doc of the year (and let's hope it gets remembered next awards season). It's about the ground-breaking, Nobel Prize-winning experiment that helped unravel the nature of existence. Veteran editor-sound designer Walter Murch ("Apocalypse Now"), who's always had a fascination for physics, was brought on to "galvanize" the project but ended up spending a year humanizing this compelling work about the collision of science and art.
"Particle Fever" follows six leading scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider (built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research from 1998 to 2008). This marked the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in history (costing around $10 billion), with 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries joining forces to recreate conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and find the elusive Higgs boson, the key particle that holds the universe together, potentially explaining the origin of all matter.
"I knew director Mark Levinson for 30 years -- he was an ADR editor but graduated at Berkeley with a doctoral in particle physics in the mid-'80s," Murch recalls. "I grilled him on the string theory of time. I knew from 2007 on that he was working on this film. I kept in touch and he sent me a cut in early 2012 to get my opinion. Then a job fell through and I became available to work on it for three months as a consultant...sifting through 300 hours of footage."
"Particle Fever" is actually quite suspenseful for such a cerebral subject. The arc of the story was clearly "the vicissitudes of the machine." After getting up and running, the Collider suffers a leak and breaks down (that's where Murch decided to sneak in the scientific backstory after gathering invaluable comments from a slew of test screenings). His mandate was to "visceralize" the experience, which he accomplished through pacing, a ticking clock, music and sections that alternate graphics and photography, creating little safe zones within the film.