Produced for the History Channel (sorry, I can't quite bring myself to calling it just "History" yet), the documentary "Einstein" intertwines a biography of the famous physicist's early years with detailed, easy-to-follow explanations of his most important theories. The history of Einstein's discoveries go hand in hand with the turbulences of his life, and this documentary covers both quite solidly, offering us a better understanding of a man everyone knows, but not everyone knows well.
The target audience here is the layman, folks like myself who are interested in such notions as relativity and curved space-time but need an introductory course. For that, we get a strong selection of physicists and astronomers (including those dependably enjoyable cable regulars Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku) breaking down Einstein's concepts. With the occasional help of animated graphics, we're walked through the basics of these discoveries and how they revolutionized how we understand the universe.
That's compelling enough, but the real treat is in how the filmmakers weave this information into Einstein's personal story. Several Einstein biographers are on hand to take us beyond the general knowledge - yes, he was a lowly patent clerk, but how fascinating to learn of his other failures, a disparaging rough patch that had him overlooked at every turn. (His father died thinking Einstein would never amount to anything!)
Even his "Miracle Year" - the span in 1905 in which he published four key papers, including his introduction of E=MC2 - originally went unnoticed by the science world; it was only later that his findings were reevaluated, launching, finally, his career in academia.
Much of Einstein's work was controversial, and frustrating to him was how long it would take to prove him right. Experiments regarding eclipse photography (to prove that the sun's gravity causes space - and with it, light - to bend around it) were delayed by the onset of World War I, a tale packed with unexpected adventure, thanks to races against the clock, German scientists held in Russian prison camps, and, later, Einstein's own discovery that his original projections were wrong. That's part of a greater story behind the acceptance of the Theory of General Relativity (also key: a last minute rush to complete an equation, travels to the remotest regions of the world, and initially conflicting results that would divide the scientific community), and the filmmakers milk it for all it's worth. Where else could you get big thrills from the precise calculations of astronomical observances?
Einstein's personal life, which was always something of a mess, is covered with equal detail, and the filmmakers don't shy away from suggesting that the man wasn't a great husband. His first marriage, in which he regularly belittled his wife and overlooked her own academic abilities, ended in divorce, with a condition reeking of self-conceit: Einstein was certain he'd eventually win the Nobel Prize and promised his wife the money if she'd leave him. He would eventually marry his cousin Elsa, with whom he traded steamy love letters years earlier.
It's all presented with the usual polish and pace of a History Channel production. "Einstein" works as both fascinating biography and entertaining education, a successful introduction to the life behind the world's most famous mind.
Video & Audio
"Einstein" is a visual mixed bag, as expected in a documentary of this sort. The newly minted interviews and graphics are solid, while archival footage varies from source to source. We're not coming here for reference quality video, of course, and what this disc offers works just fine. The downside, though, is that the 1.78:1 presentation is delivered in crummy non-anamorphic letterbox - a major letdown to those who first watched it in full 16:9 on History's HD channel.
The soundtrack, offered in a simple Dolby stereo, is passable, with clean, simple use of the dialogue. No subtitles are provided.
The presentation is sorely lacking on "Einstein," which is the only reason I'd recommend you merely Rent It. The program itself is well worth a look.