If not a quantum leap forward in science docs, “The Atom Smashers” entertainingly brings particle physics — and the brainy geeks who’ve devoted their lives to its study — into sharp focus. Pic peers as if through a microscope at the efforts of scientists at Illinois’ $2 billion Fermilab to “smash” hydrogen particles and discover the mysterious Higgs boson, which could provide the key to the universe. As these earnest Americans accelerate their own particles in competition with a Swiss lab, economic cutbacks complicate the search while making the film — airing Nov. 25 on PBS — more accessible to the ordinary wage slave.
In the absence of a major Fermilab discovery, co-directors Clayton Brown and Monica Ross delicately reformulate their doc’s drama, turning from scientific suspense to philosophical meditation on how one directs his or her life’s work and deals with disappointment. Pic’s historical view of post-WWII American atom-smashing is cleverly annotated with clips from Red Scare-era educational films, Illinois TV news coverage and a humorously dated Phil Donahue talkathon circa 1979. End titles update developments in the Higgs boson quest — and the government slashing of non-military scientific study — through September 2008.