Tuesday, April 25, 2017

REVIEW: 'Genius' - Albert Einstein Struggles to Escape Dire Circumstances in 'Einstein: Chapter One'

National Geographic's Genius - Episode 1.01 "Einstein: Chapter One"

Albert Einstein's tumultuous life reveals the man behind the mind.

Genius marks National Geographic's ongoing commitment to original scripted content. For the most part, the cable channel has stuck to TV movies about presidential assassinations. Those have done solid business for the network as well. However, Genius presents itself as a different kind of push. It's being envisioned as an ongoing anthology series. Every season of the show will focus on different brilliant historical figure. The first season centers on Albert Einstein while the second has its subject but the network won't reveal who it is until later this year. And yes, the drama has already been renewed for a second season. So, National Geographic is clearly betting on this show to be a defining brand for them. It looks absolutely gorgeous in this opening episode. Ron Howard directs this extended premiere and every shot is beautiful to look at. I'm not sure if the show will be able to maintain that quality throughout the season - especially when Howard isn't behind the camera. But this opening hour certainly sets a strong template for what could be a fascinating ongoing series.

This season sets out to paint a full picture of Albert Einstein's life. It will cover the big and well-known moments of his rise as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists. But it's also striving to tell the lesser known details of his life as well. The narrative is seemingly broken into two distant stories. In this premiere, those are Albert Einstein as a teenager in school striving for something different but struggling to obtain it and Albert Einstein as a well-regarded professor who's coming under new hardships with the rise of Nazism in Germany. It's an interesting way to break down this story. It essentially means there are two actors playing Einstein. Geoffrey Rush is an Oscar winner while Johnny Flynn is relatively unknown. Both do a fine job playing this famous historical character. Most of this episode is largely about setting up who this guy was and how the world already him defined his actions. And thus, some moments are more subdued and play as autobiographic instead of compelling in a dramatic way. It's not abundantly clear how the creative team plans to break down the events of Einstein's life into distinct episodes. So, there are moments of this premiere that sag or go on for too long. And yet, the world building is very important as well and the show does a ton of that in this premiere.

It's interesting and fun to see Einstein as a rebel during his teenage years. He's fighting against a father and a society who simply don't understand him. He has these big ideas. He's been asking these questions about the universe from a very young age. He wants to pursue a life in math and physics. He sees no need for any of the other subjects covered in school. But more importantly, he doesn't like how Germany teaches its students. It's not the way he learns best. When he speaks out with his crazy ideas, he is punished for it. That punishment comes from both the school and his father. His father is a bit of a one-note character who wants his son to fall in line and be practical about his life. He doesn't care about the questions of the universe because they have no impact on his daily life providing for his family. Even after Einstein seemingly gets his act together, the two of them are fighting over Einstein's future. It's a familiar dynamic. One that shows this kind of tension between parent and child has been present throughout the generations. As a story though, it's just too formulaic to be all that interesting. It's nice that his mother and sister were supportive though. However, he did push them away too because of their closeness to his father.

The younger Einstein is also defined through his flirtation and relationship with Marie, a member of the family he is staying with outside of Zurich. This family proves to be a good influence on him. They present a world where it's okay to say your opinions and not be condemned for them. Sure, others may disagree but it's a part of an ongoing conversation that will ultimately enrich the family dynamic. Einstein thrives in university as well because he can ask questions that have no answers and the professor doesn't just disregard him. In fact, it's meaningful that the professor who takes a keen interest in Einstein makes a lasting impression on him. He uses the same kind of visual learning when he becomes a professor later on as well. But again, it's also important that Einstein has this relationship with Marie. The first glimpse of Einstein in this show is of him having sex with a woman. That's an interesting and unexpected way to introduce him in the context of this series. Of course, it's the older version of the character. When it comes to his younger self, it's a bit more romanticized. It's ultimately about the thrill of the chase. Einstein and Marie grow close because of their clear chemistry. And yet, the premiere also ends with him leaving for university and meeting a woman in his physics' class who is even smarter than him.

When the story shifts to Einstein as an older man, he's still incredibly stubborn and flirting with multiple women. But it comes from a completely different context. Of course, this one has a feeling of familiarity to it as well. It's about one man's struggle to avoid persecution at the hands of the Nazis. Stories about the rise of Nazism in Germany are very important. They are a dark part of history that led to one of the most brutal and horrifying moments in all of time during the second World War. It's important to remember everything that happened to ensure it doesn't happen again. But here, the show is dramatizing how long it took for Einstein to actually fear for his life. The series opens with one of his colleagues being killed by rogue nationals. It's a time when the movement is just getting started and the assassinators are quickly killed. And yet, the audience knows exactly where this story is going. It's foolish for any of the characters to believe that this would be the end of things. It continues to show how the German philosophy never matched with Einstein's. He vowed never to return to Germany after he left to attend school in Zurich. But Germany is where he made his home later on in his life. And now, he's being forced to flee because it's no longer safe for him - even though people still aspire to be him one day.

The premiere definitely ends on a cliffhanger. It's the way this feels most like an episode of television. It ends in a way that forces the audience to want the next episode right away. Of course, the rest of the hour doesn't really function like that. It doesn't produce shocking moments simply to excite the audience. So, this plot beat does feel more traditional and formulaic. And yet, it still works and is an important part of Einstein's story. The United States invited him to be a guest professor at Princeton. However, his visa is being held up because FBI director J. Edgar Hoover has questions about his political beliefs. That's a common thread throughout this premiere. Everyone wants to label what Einstein believes. He believes he transcends any classification. But what he teaches and believes could be worrisome to others. In Germany, they are radical beliefs that have no place in this world. In the United States, they could mask some darker intentions that could destroy some lifelong institutions. In the moment, Einstein and his wife are simply scared citizens of the world who want to flee a bad situation before it becomes much worse. They have the means to do so. But instead, they are held up at the United States embassy for questions that they don't believe they should have to answer. That's an interesting dichotomy that does enrich the story in the end.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Einstein: Chapter One" was directed by Ron Howard with teleplay by Noah Pink and story by Noah Pink and Ken Biller.
  • Howard does a strong job in bringing the fantasies of Einstein's mind into physical spaces. When Einstein starts talking or thinking about the big questions of the universe, they become physical manifestations for the audience to see. That's a terrific way to get us into the lead character's head.
  • It's fascinating to see Einstein still so well-respected in Germany even though it doesn't take much for the other citizens to eventually turn against him and his theoretical ideas. It may be a bit too rushed but the show has to get the point across somehow.
  • Emily Watson plays Einstein's second wife, Elsa. On paper, that sounds like a meaty role to play as well. It should be given Watson's casting. But largely, she is just on the sidelines here begging for Einstein to leave Germany over and over again. Hopefully, she does more in the future.
  • Vincent Kartheiser plays the official in the US embassy asking the questions of the Einsteins before giving them their visas. It's definitely a different type of character than he's played before. The voice especially is very unique and takes a moment to really accept and understand.
  • Accent work on this show is going to be very important. It needs to be consistent. But it can't be over-the-top broad either. For the most part in this premiere, things are largely the same. And yet, there are some fluctuations that are weird as well.