Subjects such as mathematics, physics and mechanical engineering are a challenge for filmmakers to make exciting.
Director Ron Howard seems to have a feel for this kind of material. He directed the premiere episode of National Geographic’s new scripted “event” series called “Genius” about the life of Albert Einstein.
His production company -- Imagine Entertainment -- produced this 10-part series, which premieres Tuesday night. Geoffrey Rush plays the older Einstein, with Johnny Flynn playing the younger in a format that cuts from Einstein’s earlier days as a young, brash college student to his mid-adulthood in Germany in the 1930s.
This is a very high-quality production. No expense seems to have been spared to re-create the world of Central Europe both at the turn of the 20th century and then the 1930s when the Nazis are coming to power and Einstein, a Jew, must flee to America.
Several times before, Howard has directed movies in which he has met the challenges of goosing the excitement where these complicated subjects are concerned.
Most notably, he told the story of a misunderstood but brilliant mathematician in “A Beautiful Mind,” released in 2001; and depicted the wonders of spontaneous engineering in “Apollo 13.”
A scene in the premiere episode of “Genius” even has the young Einstein cleverly repairing machinery in his father’s workshop. With the knowledge that Howard directed this, you might then say to yourself: Hey, this scene is like “Apollo 13” but with Albert Einstein!
Fair enough. Ron Howard has a gift for producing popular entertainment. And there is no reason why this initial run of “Genius” (it’s supposed to come back for a second season whose subject has yet to be announced) will not prove hugely successful for NatGeo.
From a production standpoint, it’s great. From the acting and writing to the settings and costumes, it is top-drawer stuff.
One challenge for NatGeo, however, might be the fact that typical cable TV viewers don’t necessarily look to the NatGeo channel for this kind of fare.
NatGeo evidently wants to alter that way of thinking. As part of the series’ publicity push, NatGeo is wisely promoting this series in the May issue of National Geographic magazine with a cover story that asks the question “What is genius?” The series is also promoted on the cover.
Whether or not you will gravitate (no pun intended) to this miniseries about physics really depends on a banal question, which is: Are you a fan of these kinds of genius movies?
I will admit that I am not. In 2015, there was a movie about an Indian math genius called “The Man Who Knew Infinity” that came highly recommended by an acquaintance. I went to see it and was bored stiff.
I also couldn’t warm to “The Imitation Game,” the 2014 movie about a genius in England in World War II who invented the Enigma machine that could decipher Nazi codes.
Both of these movies used various tools (some would call them “tricks”) that filmmakers apply to elevate dry mathematical material. These include having various characters suddenly leap from their chairs in the middle of dinner, for example, and then sprint excitedly to their labs (or the home of a girlfriend or lab partner) after having an epiphany of some sort.
These movies often have various characters placed in scenes where they shout dramatically at each other. Usually, there’s an authority figure who doubts what the genius is telling him because the genius is proposing something new that flies in the face of conventional, accepted wisdom.
In the first two episodes of “Genius” that NatGeo provided for preview, this happens often because Einstein, according to this show, was a whiz at coming up with ideas that no one else had ever heard before.
And yet, where “The Imitation Game” had me rolling my eyes most of the time, that was not the case with “Genius.”
As a TV critic, I feel that nothing can be gained by criticizing a well-meaning “event” TV series about one of the most towering intellects of the 20th century.
It is an understatement to say that a TV series like this one is certainly worth more of a viewers time than, say, a recent, time-wasting “event” series that just ended on another network about the rivalry in the 1960s between two aging female movie stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
As a result, I highly recommend “Genius,” a series that aspires to make TV great again, and succeeds.
“Genius” premieres Tuesday night (April 25) at 9 Eastern on National Geographic.