The 10-part docudrama series, premiering Tuesday on the National Geographic Channel, goes where few accounts of the physicist’s life have gone before.
Executive producer Ron Howard told The Associated Press that the series’ eyebrow-raising first scenes “fulfilled the desire to announce to audiences right away that we weren’t approaching it in an entirely straightforward, traditional and academic way.”
“We were looking for the drama in the story and willing to deal with Einstein, warts and all,” Howard said.
But it’s not as if the filmmakers made it up: The genius behind the theories of general and special relativity really did have a passionate affair with his secretary, Betty Neumann. And Einstein’s friend, German Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau, really was assassinated in 1922, foreshadowing the rise of the Nazis to power.
Those accounts, and much more, come from Walter Isaacson’s prize-winning biography of Einstein, which was based in part on love letters that weren’t released until decades after the physicist’s death in 1955.
One of his half-dozen paramours, Margarita Konenkova, turned out to be a Soviet spy. There’s no evidence that Einstein spilled any secrets, however – even though J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI wrongly suspected him to be a Soviet sympathizer.
With all that sex and spycraft, it’s a wonder that the filmmakers were able to wedge in any physics at all. But there’s a fair amount of it, including Einstein’s teenage musings about catching up with a light wave, and how those musings eventually led to relativity, E=mc2, et cetera.
Johnny Flynn plays a hunky-looking young Einstein, while veteran actor Geoffrey Rush plays the frazzle-haired Einstein in his latter years. The A-list cast also includes Emily Watson as Elsa Einstein, the great man’s second wife and first cousin.
“Game of Thrones” fans will recognize at least two other actors: Michael McElhatton, who portrayed Roose Bolton on the HBO series and appears here as Einstein’s toughest academic adversary, Philipp Lenard; and Ania Bukstein, who plays the red priestess Kinvara on “GoT” and Konenkova on “Genius.”
Ron Howard and fellow executive producer Brian Grazer have teamed up previously on “A Beautiful Mind” and “Apollo 13,” on HBO’s “From the Earth to the Moon,” and on National Geographic’s “Breakthrough” documentary series as well as the semi-scripted “Mars” series (which is going into its second season).
If you’re looking for a deep dive into the science that Einstein pioneered, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. For instance, check out “Inside Einstein’s Mind” or “The Extraordinary Genius of Albert Einstein,” two documentaries that are available for free online. But if you’re more interested in the man behind the mind, “Genius” just might have the winning formula.
The first episode of “Genius” makes its debut on the National Geographic Channel on Tuesday evening (check local listings for times in your area). Succeeding seasons will focus on other geniuses in history. Want to chat with Einstein? Give National Geographic’s Einstein chatbot a try on Facebook Messenger.