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

A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

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 A Beau­ti­ful Mind, 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 the 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 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 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.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here