We had a free week of HBO so we decided to check out a couple of movies. The first was Einstein and Eddington, a BBC/HBO docu-drama about the relationship between Big Al (more appropriately, “Al Who?” at the time) and Cambridge astronomer Arthur Eddington (later Sir Arthur). (Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxVUq7IWyB8) In particular it was about Eddington’s “proof” of General Relativity, which made “Einstein” a household word around the world.
It was an interesting show, and worth the watch, with David Tennant (Eddington) and Andy Serkis (Einstein). Throughout the movie, I could not help but imagine Serkis portraying Robert Downey Jr. portraying Einstein. Serkis, you may know, was the voice of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I was not up on all the historical details to be sure how accurate most of the movie was, but one thing I must note is that the depiction of the 1919 eclipse was for dramatic effect and scientifically abominable. It was noted, accurately, that the eclipse would occur when the Sun was near the star cluster The Hyades, but in the depiction, the event was set in the constellation Scorpius, which is in the opposite part of the sky.
In this screen capture from the film, enhanced a bit for clarity, the grossly oversized eclipse is shown occurring in the constellation Scorpius with the “Teapot” of Sagittarius to the left. In reality, the 1919 eclipse occurred in a completely different part of the sky, the constellation Taurus.
In addition, the eclipse appeared much too large, and progressed with ridiculous rapidity. In fact, in what was referenced as five minutes before totality, the partial phase hadn’t even started. When it did, the stars were immediately visible, even though in reality the sky is much too bright until the actual period of totality. Clearly the whole sequence, which is actually only a minor segment of the 94 minute file, was directed by someone who had never seen an eclipse. Too bad.
It is good to get scientific concepts out the to public. In fact it is desperately needed. Who cares if there are a few little inaccuracies if the overall picture conveys the positive message of scientific advance? Artistic license is as old as humanity and a legitimate practice in many instances.
But in the depiction of science I think we need to be careful, especially in visual presentations. A real solar eclipse bears little resemblance to what is shown in this film. A real eclipse is a much more drawn out affair, and frankly somewhat boring during the 90 minutes or so of partial eclipse before totality (and then again after). Virtually everything of interest takes place in the few minutes of totality. This was, in fact, intimated in the film, although the circumstances were incorrect.
Although I was not well versed in the historical aspects of the movie, I did question one or two things that did, in fact, turn out to be erroneous. It turns out that there were a number of these historical errors are listed here: http://bit.ly/2uqaWhr
Overall, Einstein and Eddington is worth seeing, but keep in mind that in some ways it is more art than accurate.
P.S. the other film was The Revenant, a dark and depressing film for which I can find no redeeming value. The acting was pretty good, I suppose, but there were glaring inaccuracies such as filming in the Canadian Rockies (and Argentina) and passing it off as the Great Plains (Nebraska and the Dakotas, home range of the Pawnee and Arikara “Rees”). Even if the action wandered afield a bit, the mountains did not fit any more than in the original “True Grit” film, where Colorado substituted for eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas). One particularly egregious scene appeared to have been shot in a wet Pacific Northwest Coastal rain forest. It is not a film for the squeamish and certainly not if you are looking for something bright and sunny.