Review: Genius Pilot offers an imperfect, yet captivating look at 20th century giant

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He’s one of the most celebrated scientific minds of all time, and now he’s being brought back to life in the National Geographic TV series Genius. The man is, of course, Albert Einstein, the physicist equally known for his groundbreaking theories as he was for his physical appearance and eccentricities. In this new series produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the life of this great man will be dramatized in 10 one hour episodes. While it remains to be seen just how in depth and entertaining this show will turn out, its pilot episode is a good indication of what to expect.

Geoffrey Rush (left) and Johnny Flynn (right) as the two Einsteins

Starring Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn as the elder and younger Einstein respectively, episode one follows a nonlinear narrative bouncing between scenes in the 1920s and 1930s, and the late 1890s. This structure (which we can assume will continue for the remainder of the series) could possibly be confusing to some viewers; given the time span between scenes, it can be difficult to follow the trajectory of the story. Indeed the episode begins in 1922 Berlin and then goes back 28 years to 1894 where we see a 15-year-old Albert in grade school. The plot continues going back and forth between the teenage genius of the 1890s to a 54-year-old Einstein in 1933.

In a life as eventful as his, it must obviously be challenging to condense his biography to 10 hours of television. But having this constantly shifting timeline seems to indicate that the producers want to jam as much as possible into each episode. It’s perhaps to make sure that by the time all 10 air, as complete as possible a portrait of the man will have been presented. In the first episode, for instance, we not only saw his youth and entrance into university but also his decision to flee Nazi Germany some forty years later. There’s a lot going on, but I wonder if a more chronological approach would not have been better.

Instead of seeing both the older and younger Einstein, episode one could have focused exclusively on his formative years. By keeping Geoffrey Rush for the later episodes it could entice viewers to keep watching, waiting to see his performance. Furthermore, a linear narrative would prevent a sometimes muddled plotline; by not yo-yoing between different decades audiences could focus their attentions more. Then again as I have said, following his life chronologically may limit the amount that can be delivered in 10 episodes so putting more in each would ensure as much as possible is covered. Overall the non-linear nature of the episode (and presumably the remaining ones) wasn’t that big of a deal, but it may be overwhelming for some to try and follow all the historical things that are happening.

A person perhaps not as well versed in European history may be lost by the opening scene in the Weimar Republic and then the next one in the German Empire, and then followed by the early days of Nazi Germany. Moving forward it will be interesting to see how the episodes progress following this formula and what key moments in Einstein’s life that we will be jumping back and forth between.

The acting is very interesting and Johnny Flynn’s performance as the young physicist is very genuine. His German accent is convincing and yet it doesn’t get in the way of his diction. Einstein’s angst and frustration are captured well, and as we see more episodes I look forward to seeing how Flynn will play the genius as he comes to terms with his gift and begins making his discoveries. Geoffrey Rush is, of course, a master class, yet interestingly we see more of Flynn in this episode than of Rush. In the scenes in which we do see the older Einstein, Rush is confident but also weary of the infamy his name has caused him amongst his political enemies (including the FBI). Based on the pilot it’s early to fully analyze Rush’s work on the character but it looks to be a somewhat promising characterization.

Genius has a lot of potential to be a solid docudrama series (it has been announced that the second season will profile another genius), the kind that could undoubtedly satisfy the casual crowd (despite its zigzagging story), but leave the scholarly crowd wanting a little more accuracy and depth. It could even be used perhaps in high school classes or university lectures as an introductory look at his life. There are certainly some highly romanticized scenes, including a very questionable scene where Einstein makes love in a wheat field, but it also contains a good mix of scientific discussion and human emotions. Albert Einstein here is not a robot, he’s a very real human with complex emotions, and he also happens to grasp the scientific world in a way never before imagined. Based on this first episode, it is reasonable to assume that an imperfect, yet still captivating series will progress putting more spotlight on the genius that was Einstein.


Michael Vecchio
Michael Vecchio
Michael Vecchio is a contributing writer for Before The Cyborgs. A graduate of the University of Alberta, he is a keen follower of events in the world of film, as well as politics and history. You can also hear him podcast about film and politics



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