Note: This reviews extends only to Ep. 1 and 2, but there are many more episodes after 1 and 2 as it is an ongoing series.
National Geographic’s new TV series, Genius, directed by the acclaimed Ron Howard and starring the Academy Award-winning Geoffrey Rush, is yet another sign of NatGeo’s drive to build a reputation as a maker of original entertainment that can rival (or exceed) in quality the original content of Netflix, Amazon, and other newcomers to Hollywood’s tale-telling turf.
The signs of NatGeo moving in this direction began to catch my attention with its “Killing” series (i.e. Killing Reagan, “Killing JFK,” Killing Jesus) and especially with its remarkably high quality production of the mini-series Saints and Strangers–a series, I might add, that was notably respectful toward the Christian faith. I say “notably” because many of NatGeo’s productions, at least in the past, have leaned strongly toward the various naturalist/exclusive humanist worldviews. (You can see my review of “Saints & Strangers” here and my red-carpet interviews with the cast here.)
The “Genius” series premiered this week, April 24, with Episode 1, which can be watched in full online at the Genius page. Episode 2 airs Tuesday, May 2 at 9/8 Central.
Before I launch into a review of both Episodes 1 and 2, I must provide a brief disclaimer. As a writer for a Christian online publication who builds relationships with secular studios in Hollywood, and who attempts to create a meaningful engagement with those communities, I walk a tenuous line, especially with a production like “Genius.”
Firstly, I write these reviews to help Christians make informed choices about the entertainment they view.
But I also write to make an attempt to “step inside,” as C. S. Lewis would call it, the worldviews of the productions I review and 1) see things from their perspective; and 2) allow those things to (hopefully) kick off a broader conversation about the deeper questions (and answers) of life that our shallow, quick-twitch pop culture tends to skip over.
While I hold true to my orthodox Christian beliefs, I also maintain that we must do the very thing that we wish others would do for us: namely, to listen earnestly to the person’s point of view and try to understand it deeply and even imagine what it is like to hold that view and live day-to-day life with it.
Doing this, I deem, builds trust and improves the quality of dialogue between two parties, even when those parties hold viewpoints that are opposed to one another on almost every front. Of course, if you’re an ardent, angry activist on either side of the conversation, my let’s-try-to-listen-well-and-understand-each-other approach might seem pointless.
But yelling begets yelling.
If we want secular Hollywood to hear us out and listen to how the Gospel answers the most difficult questions of life, we must be willing to hear them out too, and to do so genuinely, ready to learn something new, and not in a patronizing spirit–to really try to understand their viewpoint and why a person holds it, to look alongside it, not at it, and to imagine what it’s like to have those beliefs.
Episode 1: How ‘Genius’ Brings Out the More Controversial Parts of Einstein’s Life
So what does Episode 1 of “Genius” do that brings greater depth to the topic of Albert Einstein?
- It shows us a more controversial, complex, aggressively hedonistic side to Professor Einstein that pop culture often skips. This side of the story, granted, introduces some overt PG-13 sexual content (including a rather shocking opening sex scene between the married Einstein and his teaching assistant in his classroom) that might give some readers pause before they decide to watch it. (To make a more informed decision, see my more detailed explanation of why it’s PG-13 in the final paragraph of this review.)
- It reveals a side to late 1930s Germany that is often overlooked: the build-up of Nazi Germany under an unsure and sometimes unsuspecting populace and the odious rise of Anti-Semitism that pervaded every corner of German culture, especially the intellectually elite. Many people don’t realize that it was the professors who were loudly pushing Nazism from their lecterns, and Einstein, himself a professor, faced off with some of his colleagues. We learn how Einstein was in the very thick of it, right on the front-lines of the Jewish community’s conflict with the Nazi party. This also brings some brutally violent moments into the story. (This is not a sit-with-the-whole-family, all ages TV series, as mentioned in #1.)
- It portrays the pressures and painful trials that Elsa Einstein (Emily Watson) had to endure as Professor Einstein’s spouse.
- It sheds light on the strongly humanistic, anti-nationalist viewpoints that shaped Einstein as a youth. Although Einstein expressed an agnostic acknowledgement of the existence of God at times in his life, this series correctly points out Einstein’s more pantheistic view of God. Whether or not the series sympathizes or praises these characteristics isn’t the point at the moment. Many people are ignorant about these views that Einstein held, and NatGeo reveals them and shows how they shaped the complex, hard-to-pin-down beliefs of Einstein.
With the legendary Ron Howard at the helm, all of the elements above are brought to the screen with great emotional and visceral power. The carefully crafted nuances of the production are usually what we expect to see on the big screen when we shell out the big bucks for a night at the theaters. NatGeo has aimed very high with this one, and their aim is sure, in terms of production value and execution of story and character.
Geoffrey Rush, under the cloak of a brilliant makeup and wardrobe job, channels Einstein with remarkable clarity and complexity that pushes the viewers beyond the pop culture stereotypes of the famous genius.
Johnny Flynn as the young Albert Einstein skillfully paints the famous physicist in a light we rarely see him: in his wildly unpredictable, free-wheeling youth who carries a strangely conflicting mix of impressionable vulnerability and bold cockiness. Like a real human being, we see the character wax and wane with arrogance one moment, then broken vulnerability the next.
Emily Watson brings finely woven emotional depths to Elsa Einstein as she tries to navigate the tumult of being married to Albert Einstein, a man who is capable of tormenting her with his hedonistic, polygamous-leaning viewpoints and also causing great anxiety with his stubborn defiance of the Nazis, even when their lives are in danger.
The rest of the cast members shine in their scenes with equal skill, and it all comes together in a well-paced, beautifully lit and designed setting.
Episode 2: The Brilliant, Tragic Mileva Maric and the Flaws of a Young Einstein
In the second episode, the narrative stops switching between the present old Einstein and the past young Einstein and stays in the past to begin a more detailed account of the young Einstein. The spotlight also spends more time on the brilliant female physicist Mileva Maric (played by Samantha Colley with an elegant fire and steely backbone).
What I found especially affecting in this episode were the flashbacks from Mileva’s childhood. It makes the viewer really cheer her on as she fights the cultural tide to attend college and study advanced physics, and how, through it all, we see her tender father supporting her and sticking up for her.
But this episode also shows the young Einstein to be an especially annoying, undisciplined, passion-driven (in a reckless way), rather selfish person. He’s sort of the Don Juan of Physics, and he leaves a wake of romantic destruction in the lives of women wherever he goes. (Though to explain why I’d have to give away some spoilers.)
It almost became frustrating. The young Einstein was a bit of a jerk.
Overall, this episode does an excellent job of showing Einstein’s weaknesses as he creates painful problems for himself and for others despite his genius that soldiers on through it all. It hooks the viewer in to see if, and how, he will overcome those weaknesses in his academic life and in his personal life.
The Many Layers of Einstein: ‘Genius’ Presents a Vividly Memorable (But Decidedly PG-13) Portrait of a Remarkable, Controversial Life
“Genius” might very well be NatGeo’s highest quality production yet, right up there with “Saints & Strangers.” It accomplishes what it sets out to do: to reveal some of the lesser known layers of Einstein, from his controversial hedonism, beliefs about polygamy, and pantheist leanings, to the warmth of his humanity and bravery in the face of Nazi violence and persecution. It also, as we see in Episode 2, shows other lesser known facets to the Einstein drama, such as Hoover’s obsessive suspicions about Einstein and how hard a time the government gave the professor.
As mentioned above, while the story is beautifully executed by Ron Howard and the cast, this series has some overt PG-13 moments (perhaps on the more mature edge of PG-13). The opening sex scene, for example, has no nudity, but it shows Einstein’s teaching assistant straddling him in the classroom with very suggestive sounds and movements as they have sex. In terms of violence, we see two men shoot a Jewish man point blank with machine guns, and the camera shows his body getting torn and bloodied to a pulp by the bullets.
Personally, I could have done without some of the less edifying visuals, but, minus those things, I found the in-depth journey into the complexities of Einstein utterly fascinating. And while I disagree with his worldview, I admire Einstein’s child-like wonder that he nurtured fervently in his creative thinking and scientific work.
“Genius,” while it shines a bright spotlight on Einstein’s controversies, also captures the wonder he had for God’s creation, even if Einstein could never bring himself to really believe in the God of the Bible or even view God as an extra-dimensional being (i.e. an infinite super-intelligence wholly independent from and outside of space, time, and matter, a distinct personality separate from nature).
Of course, my observations above only cover Episodes 1 and 2. Besides the many fascinating story threads in Einstein’s life seen in this series, it will be interesting to see how future episodes handle Einstein’s religious beliefs.
And I have a gut feeling that this series is really going to heat up, as far as the compelling weight of its storyline, when the young Einstein finds himself left out in the cold academically and forced to solve the mysteries of the universe from a humble patent office where he is a clerk. That has always been an extraordinary underdog story, and “Genius” is working up to that juicy bit of Einstein’s life with skill.