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A Beautiful Mind

It's Princeton 1947, and our narrator and hero John Nash proudly proclaims, "Math won the war, broke the code, and built the atom bomb." Nash is proud because he's a mathematician, and he's starting grad school with the hope of discovering another "big idea" and finding his own distinctive place in the world. So begins the new movie A Beautiful Mind, a bio-pic about an extraordinary man whose gifts were also his downfall.

The movie's first act establishes Nash (played by Russell Crowe) and his milieu. Somewhat awkward socially, he is obsessed with his own academic reputation. He refuses to go to class, since he considers it beneath him, and spends most of his time in his room writing on the windows, working out various mathematical formulas and concepts. His classmates find this amusing, though they acknowledge his talent. And his roommate Charles both supports him and tries to keep him sane.

Nash has his big breakthrough in a local bar when four beautiful women walk in. Now Nash, for all his social deficits, is not immune to the female charms, and his classmates goad him into making a pass at the prettiest blonde. Instead, Nash starts discoursing on how Adam Smith's economic principles are relevant (or not) to the battle of the sexes, and suddenly he shouts "Eureka!" Or he might as well, as he rushes out of the pub to work out his theory. The result is game theory, or the mathematics of competition.

Having discovered his "big idea," Nash wins a prestigious appointment at MIT. There he continues his work and begrudgingly teaches the odd class. It is one of those classes, however, where he meets his future wife (played by Jennifer Connelly). It is also during this time that he's approached by the U.S. government to help them crack the mathematical codes the Soviets are using.

Director Ron Howard (Apollo 13) wouldn't be my thirtieth choice as favorite director (last year's awful The Grinch knocked him down the list), but he does an extraordinary job here. His choice to shoot much of the film from Nash's point-of-view is both effective and intriguing. Through a subtle use of special effects, we in the audience are able to grasp how Nash goes about breaking the codes, and we also experience how Nash perceives the world around him. This is particularly helpful halfway through the film, when he undergoes a crisis. His condition is considerably more believable because of Howard's choices, taking a situation that might be difficult to appreciate and making it understandable.

My friend Garth complained that Howard had simplified things too much, but I disagree. There are limits to what you can do in a two-hour movie, and Howard (and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, The Client) balances the need for clarity with a commitment to reality. Apparently, the script has taken some liberties with Nash's life, but what bio-pic doesn't these days.

Russell Crowe has established himself as one of the best and most versatile actors working today. Though I didn't agree with his Oscar win for Gladiator, he was certainly solid in that and much better in The Insider and L.A. Confidential. Here, he has the even more difficult role of a brilliant but troubled mathematician, and he nails it. Cocky and awkward, funny but prone to fits of paranoia, Crowe conveys every facet of John Nash's personality with clarity and feeling. It's an intense and personal portrayal.

Matching Crowe scene for scene is Jennifer Connelly who plays Nash's wife Alicia. Though her character doesn't enter the movie until it's well under way, her steely-eyed performance and classic-Hollywood good looks are a strong addition. There's a wonderful scene in a restaurant where Alicia is talking with John, trying to explain the nature of love. The simple sincerity of her delivery is especially winning.  Connelly, who's made a name for herself in small pics like Requiem for a Dream and Waking the Dead, will hopefully get the exposure she's long deserved.

The rest of the cast doesn't have a lot to do. Paul Bettany (A Knight's Tale) offers an interesting flamboyance to the part of Nash's college roommate and longtime "friend." Ed Harris (Pollock) looks nicely menacing in his black fedora, but otherwise his part as a government agent is fairly boilerplate. And Judd Hirsch and Christopher Plummer don't have anything more than cameos.

That doesn't matter, though, when you have such a well-told story and two strong performances. The ending is unfortunately far too Hollywood (a nauseating speech about love is followed by a standing ovation--yuck!), but I was happy to blame that, like John Nash might have, on faceless operatives. The visage of John Nash, however, and his wife Alicia are wonderfully clear. 

J. Robert Parks  12/21/2001

It's nicely done, but what good is a film about a real-life genius when the film never bothers to demonstrate his genius?

At first glance, A Beautiful Mind is an inspiring tale about a "genius" mathematician who struggles with severe mental problems.  It is based on the true story of John Nash, whose mathematical breakthroughs have apparently changed the world. I found myself caught up in its inspiring story, but afterwards when I thought about it, I felt like I'd just had my five bucks stolen by a con-artist. I'll explain why.

For two hours, we endure the hardship of John Nash's mental problems right alongside him. Director Ron Howard does his typically adequate job of telling the story, showing how Nash is compelled into a world of equations and formulas while the real world baffles and bewilders him. In social circles, he's brusque and rude. He insults the "great ideas" of his genius peers, calling their work "derivative" and declaring, "There's not an original or innovative idea in any of it."  Even though he's unkind and out-of-touch, we are led to root for him when he is drawn into working for a harsh and manipulative government operative (Ed Harris.) And we also root for him to overcome his social awkwardness when an admiring student (the radiant Jennifer Connelly) starts courting him.

Russell Crowe, who deserved an Oscar for his work in The Insider (and didn't for Gladiator) gives another fantastic performance here. He transforms himself into a staggering, bewildered, tormented soul. In spite of a bland script, he gives us glimpses of a hurting spirit, an alienated boy, through the sickness that slowly comes to dominate his mind. It's hard to watch. As the film ages both he and his wife into their 60s, the performances and the makeup (the finest aging makeup I have ever seen) convince us that these are real people, facing daily trials more difficult than many of us have ever encountered.

A Beautiful Mind is a remarkable portrayal of two characters struggling with mental illness.  But it wants to be much more than that, and it isn't. As a matter of fact, this is no where near the territory of "Based on a True Story", as it claims.

First of all:
This is a movie about a real person, who is still living... John Nash. The movie claims to be based on his life. Much of its detail comes from a recent biography of his life, written by Sylvia Nasar, called A Beautiful Mind.  Do some reading, and you’ll find out the movie only borrowed some of the more movie-ish details from his life and turned them into an inspiring movie. 

Now, I'm not against streamlining or editing a true story to help the movie work better. But I am against fabrications and cover-ups that give us an imbalanced, dishonest view.

The romance between Nash and his girldfriend doesn't seem such a fairy tale when you read that the real John Nash abandoned an earlier lover and a child. THAT chapter is completely ignored, and the onscreen courtship plays like the sweet, romantic introduction of Nash into the world of intimacy.  And of course, since moviegoers are swooning at THAT idea, the movie steers clear of the apparently well-known accounts of Nash's homosexual activity, and how "he lost his security clearance and his position at the RAND Corporation after he was arrested for soliciting sex in a men's room in Santa Monica, Calif." 

Further, there is no mention of this not-so-happy-ending:   HIS WIFE DIVORCED HIM when things got rough. And their child is suffering from similar mental disorders. 

A.O. Scott at the New York Times adds further observations: "[Nash] was hardly the intrepid cold warrior depicted by Mr. Howard and Mr. Goldsman. Even at RAND, the Defense Department think tank, he was more interested in pure research than in its application, and in 1960 he tried to renounce his United States citizenship to express his belief in the necessity of world government."  Or how about this...  "One of the first manifestations of Nash's schizophrenia was his belief that aliens were sending him secret coded messages through the New York Times and over radio stations. (He also, at other times, attempted to renounce his U.S. citizenship, and traveled to Europe believing he was a secret religious figure chosen to be the Prince of Peace.)" 

Why aren't THESE fascinating behaviors? 

Probably because the hallucinations that are included are easier for an audience to swallow, and it's easier to make Nash a hero.   Similarly, the film avoids "his racism, his snobbery, his history of violent behavior toward others." Sure, the happy ending is based on real events, but the big sappy speech he gives is a far cry from what he really said, which was included speculation as to whether he was really better off coping with the real world.

Contrary to popular opinion in Hollywood, people are intelligent, and many of them like to think about their movies. Thus, the film would have been a more effective "true story" if it had balanced his Hollywood-ish high points with the rest of the story. You may be moved by this movie, but keep in mind that it's a fictional character, not the real John Nash.

Second problem: 
The movie is called A Beautiful Mind. John Nash was, if you will, a Michael Jordan of the math world. Imagine if you will a movie about the life of a Jordan-like basketball hero who suffers from mental illness.  The movie could be called "A Beautiful Basketball Player." But what if that film only focused on that player's injuries or illnesses, without showing us any great basketball? Would you feel a bit cheated? 

A Beautiful Mind never show us "a beautiful mind." Russell Crowe portrays Nash staring at numbers and recognizing patterns. We watch him scribbling obsessively.He gives Nash a hundred different physical tics, so we gasp and marvel at his showmanship, just as we would a juggler who can keep a hundred rubber balls in the air for two hours.  But we have absolutely no idea what he does with those numbers. Sure, he discovers things that are useful in the forum of world economics, but how? Why? 

Last year, Ed Harris played the artistic genius Jackson Pollock, and while Pollock obviously suffered mental traumas, we got to watch him paint. Harris actually took us into Pollock's philosophies of painting, his technique, his style. We got to look at the things Pollock made. Russell Crowe wins our sympathies merely by showing us a man in suffering. He shows Nash at his worst, but never shows us the talent that drives him, the things about math that compels him, the insights that he has about numbers and patterns. You would think that a movie about the world's greatest mathematician would teach us a little something about math. Instead, we're given an essay on the plight of schizophrenics. 

Third:
A Beautiful Mind is guilty of the same criticism John Nash levels at a colleague. It doesn’t have an original or an innovative thought in its head. We’ve seen movies about people with such illnesses before. We’ve seen the staggering, the eye twitches, the fits. Geoffrey Rush in Shine.  Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Robert DeNiro in Awakenings. We've even seen tormented mathematical geniuses before (Good Will Hunting.) Crowe is certainly competitive with these actors. But so what? How many times have we watched the good student triumph over his mean-spirited classmates? How many times have we seen frustrated wives break mirrors and scream in frustration?  Too many movies have portrayed a character's Epiphany by spinning the camera around his head until the audience is dizzy. And it seems there will never be an end to movies that end with an awards ceremony and a big sentimental speech about love (another fabrication for the film.)

This, folks, is called a formula. A by-the-numbers movie, made to hit all the right buttons and score all the right points in order to win an Oscar. And to do that, they took a truly inspiring story and trimmed all of the truly rough edges. Ron Howard once again shows that he's watched a lot of movies, and can do things that have been proven effective before, but I still have no sense of his personality, no evidence of any original ideas in his head. He's like a kid at a science fair trying to build the best remote control car.  He builds his Oscar contenders from kits. It's decent craftsmanship, but it's a far cry from art. 

G.K. Chesterton's masterful testimony of his own search for truth, Orthodoxy, argues that it is not irrationality that leads a man to madness, but obsessive rationality. Focus on the cold clinical platonic ideals of mathematics and logic leads a man to an incomplete understanding of the world, and leaves him ignorant toward the mysterious but equally important forces of grace, love, and all things that defy logic. Nash is an interesting example of this. Similarly, the movie is a perfect example of how following the "numbers" of crowd-pleasing filmmaking may produce an answer that satisfies the audience, but the whole process itself lacks truth, and is, in the end, madness.

Jeffrey Overstreet 1/5/2002

Copyright © 2001 by Jeffrey Overstreet. 


 
 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer  web page and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists.   He is also the editor of a weekly column at ChristianityToday.com called Film Forum, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association. You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com.

First thought after seeing A Beautiful Mind: I can't believe Opie (Ron Howard) directed this film. Mr. Howard has a good deal of versatility to move from the childish Dr. Seuss' Grinch Who Stole Christmas of last year to the emotional drama/psychological thriller A Beautiful Mind. The direction of the movie reminded me more of the great work of M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable).

A Beautiful Mind is based on the life of John Nash (Russell Crowe). A brilliant student and social recluse from Princeton University developed Game Theory. Nash became a respected teacher at MIT and made contributions to the US government by helping to crack a secret Soviet code. Along the way, Nash married Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), one of his students from MIT, and they had a child. However, just as Nash's movie life seems to be going well, he is hunted down by the Soviets. He must trust the mysterious Parcher (Ed Harris) to protect him from the Soviets, yet all the while Nash's paranoia grows. When Nash is eventually caught, a startling discovery is made that turns the entire movie upside down. A Beautiful Mind is the story of a lonely, awkward man clawing his way to the top, falling to the very bottom, and through love and hard work fully realizing his potential once again.

Although A Beautiful Mind is based on a true story, it does bend some key facts of John Nash's life. The sexual scandals are not mentioned in the movie. The real John Nash's son was actually born out of wedlock and Nash was divorced by his wife Alicia. In this regard, the movie makes Nash's character a bit easier to enjoy. However, even in the movie, Nash's problems are evident. He is not made out to be a hero necessarily for who he is, but more for what he accomplished.

Russell Crowe delivers the year's best performance in A Beautiful Mind. The character of John Nash is by no means an easy part to play, but Crowe pulls it off perfectly. He is believable and draws sympathy from the audience. Just as impressive is the fact that the movie covers over fifty years of Nash's life and Crowe plays Nash throughout the whole movie. The supporting performances by Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris are terrific as well.

What makes A Beautiful Mind truly compelling is that it does not seem to present anyone as a hero or attempt to perpetuate a message. Instead, director Ron Howard has woven his tale and made the characters so realistic and believable that the audience can find the meaning of the movie on its own without being manipulated.

Look for this movie to capture several Oscar nominations and possibly a few wins. A Beautiful Mind is a beautiful movie that easily captures its audience for two and a half hours to tell its tale of loss, gain, joy, and sadness, one of the best tales that the big screen has seen this year.

Trae Cadenhead  1/10/2002


 

 
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