Newspaper article The Canadian Press

TIFF 2017: Movie Magic from Math and Science

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

TIFF 2017: Movie Magic from Math and Science

Article excerpt

TIFF 2017: Movie magic from math and science

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Anthony Bonato, Professor of Mathematics, Ryerson University

Math and science are hot topics with contemporary filmmakers. Think of the brilliant portrayal of African-American mathematicians and scientists in 1960s NASA in "Hidden Figures" or the tale of mathematical genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and his groundbreaking work with Godfrey Hardy at Cambridge University in "The Man Who Knew Infinity."

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), underway this month, is not immune to the charms of math and science, with past crowd-pleasers such as "The Theory of Everything" and "The Martian." As a mathematics professor with a love for film and a Patron's Circle membership that offers access to many of the festival's premieres, I go on an annual search for STEM-centric movies.

Strange cultural collisions can occur between STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) storytelling and fans. In a cast chat after the TIFF 2015 premiere of "The Imitation Game," Benedict Cumberbatch spoke about the protagonist, Alan Turing, as a mathematician and gay icon. In a now famous incident, his thoughtful reflections on Turing were disrupted by an audience member asking to "feast on his yumminess."

Although TIFF made recent headlines about slimming down its slate of offerings, there is no shortage of movies this year to pique my interest. Two movies caught my attention, each with science themes, and I give flash reviews of them below.

The Current War

1880. The world is still lit by fire.

These words on the opening title card set the stage for "The Current War," whose world premiere was at TIFF 2017.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Thomas Edison, who is in a race with George Westinghouse, played by Michael Shannon, to get electricity to market. Edison is a proponent of direct current, which is safer, more expensive and has less range. In contrast, Westinghouse developed alternating current, which is cheaper but potentially lethal. Alternating current won in the end, but Edison was not willing to easily let go of the fight.

"The Current War" is eerily evocative of the modern race to innovation and commercialization within STEM.

Imagine a present-day Edison as Elon Musk pitching a new electric car. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon does a superb job telling a lesser known story about the commercialisation of electricity set against the backdrop of late nineteenth century Americana.

Cumberbatch is no stranger to playing brooding and complex intellectuals, from Alan Turing to Sherlock Holmes to superhero Doctor Strange. Shannon is a familiar face in science fiction outings, playing the loyal father in "Midnight Special" and the villain General Zod in "Man of Steel. …

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