Thinking back to my ’80s childhood, I’m not quite sure what I expected to be doing when I got to be my dad’s age. As a white middle-class Catholic kid in Duluth, Minnesota, I was told I could grow up to do whatever I wanted, and what I most wanted was to work as a continuity expert for the Transformers franchise.
Still, I was fascinated by a library book on engineering. Math and science, I learned, were behind the everyday wonders I took for granted — from the Aerial Lift Bridge to our new microwave oven — and there was creativity involved as well. Engineering was my first major in college, and though I ultimately transferred to education, I enjoyed a memorable semester playing in wind tunnels and touring sludge digesters.
What I’m getting to is that I shouldn’t have been surprised at how fascinated I was by Dream Big, the 2017 film opening this week at the Science Museum of Minnesota. A proud advertisement for the profession of engineering, sponsored by the firm Bechtel and co-produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Dream Big tells the inspiring human stories behind engineering feats small and large.
The field of engineering sorely needs to attract and retain more a more diverse corps: in the United States today, 81% of civil engineers are white and 87% are male. Accordingly and gratifyingly, Dream Big puts women and people of color front and center.
We meet Menzer Pehlivan, a Turkish-American engineer whose terrifying youthful experience with an earthquake inspired her to specialize in seismic hazards. There’s Avery Bang, who leads a team coordinating literal bridge-building projects in the developing world.
Angelica Hernandez is a Mexican-American engineer who recounts her formative experience in a high school robotics club led by Fredi Lajvardi: a club that we see, against huge odds, prevailing over elite university clubs in an underwater robotics competition.
You may choke up along with Hernandez as she describes her mentor’s inspiration, and if you’re aware of the fact (unmentioned in the film) that she’s one of the DACA recipients whose status has been thrown into limbo by President Trump, you may also feel the need to turn around and scream into your cushioned seat.
Dream Big is a MacGillivray Freeman joint, and director Greg MacGillivray has perfected a certain mode of crowd-pleasing big-format showiness. There’s a cute shot of an octo-copter (if I counted the blades correctly) flying over the Great Wall of China. There are animations of cities springing up before our eyes. Is there a montage of engineers celebrating a new bridge with Haitian villagers, set to Matisyahu’s “One Day”? I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but don’t bet against it.
The fact that this movie about infrastructure, funded by a gargantuan private firm that had alumni in the Reagan cabinet, emerges as a stirring humanist epic is testament to the skill of the filmmakers and to the insanity of our times — but most of all to the genuine heroism of its subjects.
Dream Big both opens and closes with shots of the International Space Station, reminding us what we can accomplish if we stop pointing fingers at each other and start pointing up at the sky.