You are all my reasons: A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

If you don’t mind the fact that this Oscar-winning biography alters the real story considerably, it will certainly be a wonderful experience

A Beautiful Mind

Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on “A Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar. Starring Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany, Adam Goldberg, Judd Hirsch, Josh Lucas, Anthony Rapp and Christopher Plummer.

John Nash was a brilliant man. His former professor Richard Duffin at the Carnegie Institute of Technology even wrote in his recommendation letter for Nash’s entrance to Princeton University: “He is a mathematical genius.” At the early age of 22, John Forbes Nash Jr. earned a PhD degree in non-cooperative games (which would become an important pillar in game theory and economics) and went on to make major contributions to differential geometry, nonlinear partial differential equations and singularity theory. Sylvia Nasar details also in her unauthorized biography of Nash that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, abandoned a nurse pregnant with his son and had homosexual experiences when working at RAND Corporation in California.

Ron Howard’s adaptation of Nasar’s book never mentions the nurse, Nash’s son or his homosexual escapades, and most of the general criticism towards the film is directed to those considerable changes made in real history. I can see the dramatic reason for turning the symptoms of Nash’s illness into visual hallucinations (something that in real life never happened) but it is puzzling that many other things are changed apparently just for the sake of it. Contrary to the movie, for instance, Nash never worked for the Department of Defense or Wheeler Laboratory at MIT (a lab that doesn’t even exist). I’m all for artistic freedom if it supports the narrative, but here the changes are so plentiful that the movie could have simply told us this is the story of any fictitious guy. But then, of course, it would have lost the “based on real events” factor.

On the other hand, it is a great thing that Akiva Goldman’s script is superb on its own, and that means a lot. In the movie, Nash (Russell Crowe) is depicted right from the beginning (when we see him at Princeton in 1947) as a not very sociable man who sits alone in the back of the classroom and is easily intimidated by normality. With a distracted mind that wanders from simple things like ties to pigeons, he is a man in desperate need of recognition as opposed to “mere” accomplishment, which drives him to look through to the “governing dynamics” as “the only way to actually matter.” It is thus interesting to see how his obsession with finding patterns that govern chance evolves psychologically into a state of paranoia and belief that there is a major scheme behind everything.

Crowe displays the gradual growth of Nash’s paranoia with an expressive face, composing a character who usually looks down and seems unable to even start a normal conversation with a woman — and his nervous tics only add to the whole picture. “I don’t like people much,” he says. We believe him. With curious eyes and an introverted, self-absorbed personality, he makes it seem only natural that in those years of Cold War and espionage he would believe himself to be sole person capable of seeing Soviet codes secretly embedded in American newspapers and magazines, and nothing could be more revealing than Nash considering himself to be the “best natural code breaker.” Crowe carries the movie on his shoulders and deserved the Oscar nomination he got.

It is therefore a wonderful thing to see how Howard makes us see most of the film from Nash’s point of view. With the use of circular tracking shots around him, shining numbers and letters that appear to jump out of the screen, whispering thoughts in voiceover and even his face in extreme close-up during moments of deep musings, Howard places us inside Nash’s head, and so it comes as a true surprise for us viewers to realize that all of the fear, terror and paranoia that he experiences is in fact a product of a sick mind. Howard’s direction is especially impressive and effective in a suspenseful car chase scene that takes place during the night and a tense moment when Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) arrives at a house followed by the sound of a military-like beat.

Connelly, by the way, delivers a fantastic Oscar-winning performance as Nash’s wife Alicia. She has a good chemistry with Crowe and her acting is particularly amazing in a key moment when Alicia tells Nash that he is delusional. It is a memorable scene, possibly my favorite, although even more impressive is how she is able to convey through the entire film a gamut of feelings that include at first confidence (when she asks him out to dinner) and later fear and frustration. Another actor who stands out is Paul Bettany, playing a character whose free-spirited personality is a curious contrast to that of Nash’s (is he a representation of Nash’s ego?), while Ed Harris, on the other hand, plays a mysterious man who we first see observing Nash from above and is usually seen in the shadows (his super-ego?)

In fact, when we think about Nash’s secretive homosexual experiences in the 1950s, it is quite interesting to notice how Nash’s id (his most basic impulses) could be represented by an orphan girl in need of attention and love. I don’t know if this was a conscious choice by Goldsman but it seems like a valid interpretation of Nash’s fragmented mind. Also making use of great editing, a beautiful music score (especially in the party scene with Nash and Alicia) and a very fine makeup that makes Crowe even resemble the real Nash when much older, A Beautiful Mind is a compelling drama about what it is like to realize that you cannot trust your own mind, however brilliant it is, and what it is like to find out that many things in your life are not real and have never been.

On May 23, 2015, John and Alicia Nash were killed in a car crash while riding in a taxi from the airport, having just arrived in New Jersey back from Norway, where Nash had received the Abel Prize for his work on nonlinear partial differential equations. A tragic loss. Those out there who wish to know more about who John Nash was, I suggest Nasar’s book or a documentary about his life. But those who care to see a touching account that is actually “very loosely based on real events,” don’t look any further, for A Beautiful Mind is a most wonderful experience.

August 31, 2016

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