ME & ISAAC NEWTONNR
Michael Apted's Me & Isaac Newton considers the lives and work of seven scientists. Ashok Gadgil, a charismatic environmental physicist, limits his research to things which are practical, and which will see fruition in the next 20 years. Gadgil demonstrates the solar-powered device he invented to sterilize water. The late Nobel Prize winner Gertrude Elion, a pharmaceutical chemist, discusses her role in the development of a drug to treat acute leukemia, and one to prevent the body from rejecting transplanted organs. Primatologist Patricia Wright talks about the time when she was a social worker and, on a whim, purchased an owl monkey for a pet. That led to her present career and her discovery of a new species of lemur in Madagascar. Every one of the scientists is equally compelling, but Apted's unnatural structuring of their stories doesn't leave room for an in-depth discussion of their work or their personal lives.
Me & Isaac Newton is divided into four sequences called 'Beginnings,' about the scientists' childhoods; 'The Work,' which explains their research; 'Eureka,' where they explore the role of intuition; and 'The Future,' in which the scientists discuss their expectations for their respective disciplines. At first, it seems that Apted made a mistake in not beginning with the scientists' achievements in order to allow the audience to put their lives and their research in context. However, the real problem with the film is its overall structure, which places all the scientists into a narrative mold of Apted's making. Since everyone first discusses their childhood, and then their work, the film deprives the audience of the most revealing aspects of the scientists' personalities: For instance, left to their own devices, in an interview, how would they choose to introduce themselves and their research? Would they even connect their childhood to their present interests?
Apted, well-known for narrative features such as Coal Miner's Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist-and most recently for the James Bond movie, The World is Not Enough-has often distinguished himself as a fine documentarian, especially with his 7 Up series and Incident at Oglala. The director's command of the medium is obvious, and in Me & Isaac Newton, he uses his considerable talent to make a 'talking-heads' movie visually interesting. For instance, we see Gadgil's water purifier in use, and we travel with Wright to Madagascar to see the lemurs. However, Apted's techniques don't always work. Computer scientist Maja Mataric's gadgets are unexplained props, as is cognitive scientist Steven Pinker's neurological testing equipment. Cancer researcher Karol Sikora's x-rays provide a compelling backdrop for his interview, but he never refers to them. In representing the work of theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, the co-founder of 'string theory,' Apted creates meaningless montages of Einstein's formulas.
Me & Isaac Newton has no unifying principle, and it fails to connect the work of the scientists to some greater purpose. So, while there are riveting moments-usually, intensely personal revelations-there's no catharsis. At the end of the film, you don't understand some great truth about science that you didn't understand before, and while the need for a water purifier or a cure for cancer is obvious, the need to complete Einstein's 'theory of everything' isn't. Apted does not allow the scientists to justify their work. Instead, we see them through his jaundiced eyes-for the filmmaker, they're geniuses deserving of immortality. Handed to the audience in gilt frames, the scientists are largely objects of awe rather than flesh and blood. In the final analysis, that's what makes Me & Isaac Newton so dissatisfying.