Think “genius” and your next thought is probably “Einstein.”
Think “Einstein” and your next thought is probably “E=mc2.”
And after that? For most of us, not too much.
National Geographic, in conjunction with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment, aims to change that with Season 1 of its planned anthology series Genius, which profiles the German-born physicist.
The true genius of Genius is how it turns its source material, Walter Isaacson’s 700-page Einstein: His Life and Universe, into a rich and intimate tapestry woven from Einstein’s experiences as the youthfully impulsive, impatient and lusty black sheep of his family (played with verve by Johnny Flynn) and as a world-wizened, but no less wonder-filled, scientific rock star (Geoffrey Rush, a physical match for the real deal). Here, Einstein is a young man who foundered in German classrooms filled with boys identical in dress and expression, and rejected science being used for capitalism and cruelty. An egoist who longed for the approval of his father, his instructors, his peers — even when he wasn’t inclined to afford them the same. A natural teacher who redefined scientific discovery, but, for years, could only find work as a patent clerk. And a wicked wit, transfixed by music and water.
“We don’t want this show for a minute to feel like homework,” says Howard. “People will come away smarter, with a deeper understanding of the science, but more importantly of the man and the people around him that shaped those ideas and also made it possible for him to finally reach our public awareness.”
In other words, don’t fear that science. Einstein’s greatest breakthroughs came from intricate visualizations he called “thought experiments,” and Genius makes dazzling use of them, illustrating complex observations and ideas via gorgeous, accessible imagery. “He was fascinated by nature. He was fascinated by machines. He was fascinated by the details of existence,” Howard says. “That made every hour of every day interesting to him. I wanted to acknowledge that and create a visual style for the show that is going to draw you in.”
And while you may know the churning global political climate during Einstein’s lifetime, Genius also lays bare a stunning war on free and creative thinking in his German homeland. Born to Jewish parents and inherently averse to authority, Einstein considered politics a “momentary concern,” nationalism “an infantile disease” and Hitler “a loudmouth, art-school reject with a handful of followers” who wouldn’t last a year. As such, he was targeted by fascists — some, his own scientific contemporaries — and became a vocal pacifist.
“There was a very real possibility that he might not have succeeded, that he might not have been allowed to flourish and achieve because of politics, because of bigotry,” Howard says. “It remained a part of his life until his last day.”
As for scoring the Oscar-winning Rush to play the elder Einstein, Howard says, “we actually mocked up a picture of him and sort of digitally made him into Einstein. We could see that it could work — and it turns out that he did the same thing, himself. He did a digital version, as well, to prove to himself that he could actually get to a place that would live up to his sense of what he wanted to do with the character. He loved the approach. He loved the earthiness of it. He loved the honesty of it, and he loved the nature of the entire story. He even liked that there was a younger version of the character. He was a huge advocate of getting together with Johnny Flynn, and they found lines of dialogue and gestures and phrases and attitudes that they could share and that would be initiated with young Albert that Geoffrey could then play with. As a director, it’s been really exciting just to see the professionalism and the creativity and the hard work of both of these guys to try to get it right and create one seamless character. I really believe they achieved that.”
Genius airs Tuesdays at 9/8c beginning April 25 on National Geographic.