A Beautiful Mind (2001)

[July 2012 Update: In the buzz of recent Hollywood news, we've learned that Jennifer Connelly will reunite with Russell Crowe for Darren Aronofsky's epic retelling (reinvention?) of the story of Noah, the Ark, and the Deluge. That inspires me to look back at Crowe and Connelly's last collaboration, the Academy Award-winning film A Beautiful Mind, directed by Ron Howard. Here's my original review—perhaps "rant" is a more appropriate word—with some minor revisions. It's almost ten years old now, but my opinion of the film hasn't changed.]

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At first glance, A Beautiful Mind is an inspiring tale about a “genius” mathematician who struggles with severe mental problems. And as long as we can focus on that first glance, the film provides compelling entertainment.

I found myself caught up in the movie. Director Ron Howard (Splash, Parenthood) delivers an intriguing story about a man struggling to maintain clarity as his prodigious powers of imagination bring him inspiration, delusion, true love, and trouble. How rare is this? A film out of Hollywood in which the hero’s most heroic endeavor involves restraint and self control!

But A Beautiful Mind presents itself as the true story of John Nash, whose mathematical breakthroughs have apparently changed the world. And there’s the rub.

I came away from A Beautiful Mind feeling inspired to learn more about this fascinating character. And the farther I moved from the movie, the more I began to see it for what it is: a fantasy, at best… and at worst, a rip-off game by con-artist.

Strong accusations? I suppose so. And for the record, I don’t expect films that are “based on a true story” to be 100% factual. It’s impossible to tell a story that is entirely true to its inspiration; we all invent fictions in order to convey aspects of the truth that are most important to us.

But shouldn’t movies that claim to be “based on actual events” seek to bear some resemblance to those “actual events”? Is it too much to ask that the filmmakers and storytellers be reasonable in their embellishments?

Watching this film, we endure the hardship of John Nash’s mental problems right alongside him. Howard, who has proven time and time again that he can build a decent, workmanlike motion picture does his typically adequate job of telling the story.

And the great Russell Crowe brings a lot to the production. Crowe, who deserved an Oscar for his work in The Insider (but received one for Gladiator instead, alas!) is fantastic. He transforms himself into this staggering, bewildered, tormented soul. In spite of a bland script, he gives us glimpses of a hurting spirit, an alienated boy, incapable of discerning the difference between fantasy and reality. It’s hard to watch. As we watch Nash grow old, Crowe’s performance and makeup (some of the finest aging makeup I have ever seen) deliver a completely convincing human being burdened with challenges most of us have never imagined.

Nash is a character who isn’t comfortable with what we consider “normal life.” In social circles, he’s brusque and rude. Around women, he’s awkward and downright insulting. At work, he ridicules 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.”

Nash’s troubles stem from schizophrenic hallucinations, and A Beautiful Mind is the story of his struggle to reject false realities and hold fast to what is true.

But he is calm, collected, and right at home whenever he’s breaking codes and solving mathematical problems. We can see the potential in him, and so, in spite of his unkindness, we find Nash sympathetic. We 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.

As a result, A Beautiful Mind stands apart from most Hollywood hero epics, in which we are told again and again to obey our hearts and our impulses. This story dares to suggest that the path to fulfillment and peace requires that we deny of self-destructive impulses. This is the most resonant chord in the film’s dissonant symphony. At its heart, A Beautiful Mind is a parable about self-control, and about becoming a better person through the transforming of our minds.

It’s a shame, then, that the movie contradicts itself.

For the sake of crowdpleasing, Howard abandons the thought of restraint when Nash is tempted into romance by a student named Alicia. The allure of a glamorous romance gets the better of him, and their plunge into passion is portrayed without any question about the propriety of such behavior. Further, we are baited into cheering when Nash lashes out at those around him, because it makes for good spectacle. (I’m reminded of Crowe’s earlier role, as Maximus in Gladiator. Remember how, as the audience in the Colisseum cheered at disgraceful spectacle, Maximus shouted, “Are you entertained?”)

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Ah, but isn’t this a true story? Isn’t Howard just telling us what happened?

Actually, no.

A Beautiful Mind presents itself as a biography of the flesh-and-blood John Nash. And in fact, it is really only a flashy, sentimental Hollywood movie, inspired by a few particular details of the John Nash story. (Some of the movie’s details come from a recent biography of his life, written by Sylvia Nasar, called A Beautiful Mind.)

Many of the things that would have made this a compelling true-life drama have been eliminated, judged as too messy, too complicated, or damaging to the potential heroic glory of the character. In a sense, the storytellers have told the audience “You can’t handle the truth!” It’s my opinion that many of the details they threw out would have made the story even more interesting! There’s nothing wrong with streamlining or editing a true story in order to abridge a story to reasonable length, or to help the audience focus on a particular aspect of a story. But there’s plenty wrong with calling something “the true story” and then fabricating happy endings where there aren’t any.

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The first significant fabrication: The romance between Nash and his girlfriend.

The movie gives us a fairytale love story in which Nash and Alicia live happily ever after. It ignores the fact that the real John Nash abandoned an earlier lover and a child, preferring to sell Nash as an endearing romantic hero, and to convince us that it was Alicia who first lured him into an intimate relationship.

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The second fabrication: The movie gives us a troubled, straight Prince Charming.

But in reality, there are 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.”  (A.O. Scott at The New York Times).

Hmm. There’s certainly no hint of that in this sanitized-for-your-comfort adaptation.

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Third: Happily ever after?

In the true story, Alicia divorced Nash when things got rough. And their child is suffering from similar mental disorders.

Wait, didn’t we see Nash and Alicia together at the Oscars, when the movie was in the spotlight? Yes. They got back together just in time for that event. How timely.

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The list goes on: A.O. Scott at The New York Times points to other “trimmed branches” of this story:

[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.)

I want to see that movie! Why aren’t these fascinating behaviors in the film?

Probably because the hallucinations that are included are easier for an audience to swallow. It’s easier to sell tickets to a story about a hero.

Similarly, the film avoids Nash’s “racism, his snobbery, his history of violent behavior toward others.”

Sure, the happy ending is based on real events, but the big sappy speech given by Nash at the film’s climax is a far cry from what he really said, which was included his own speculation that he might have been better off avoiding “the real world.”

Contrary to popular opinion in Hollywood, people are intelligent, and many of them like to think about their movies. I think the film would have been more powerful if it had stuck to the details. If we watch A Beautiful Mind uninformed, we may be moved by the fiction. But imagine what might have been.

Here’s where I differ from the filmmakers: We can handle the truth.

Do I think the film should have been a parade of horrors and crises? No. But I do think it should have introduced us to the most fascinating aspect of John Nash’s story: the so-called “beautiful mind” mentioned in the title.

Imagine a movie about the life of Michael Jordan called A Beautiful Athlete. But what if that film only focused on Michael Jordan’s personal problems — perhaps his recent marital troubles — and never showed you Michael Jordan playing basketball? Would you feel a bit cheated by the title?

John Nash was, if you will, a Michael Jordan of the math world.  A Beautiful Mind shows Nash staring at numbers and recognizing patterns. We watch him scribbling obsessively. Crowe gives Nash a hundred different physical tics, so we gasp and marvel at this consummate actor’s 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 Nash is doing. 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. In A Beautiful Mind, 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.

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Finally:

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 (Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi). 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?  And far too many movies have portrayed a character’s epiphany by spinning the camera around his head until the audience is dizzy.

Perhaps the most common trick of all… end the movie with a big sentimental speech about love (another fabrication for the film).

This, folks, is a by-the-numbers movie, made to push all the right buttons and score all the right points in order to sway audiences and win an Oscar. And to do that, they took a truly inspiring story and trimmed all of the rough edges that might give it the discomforting appearance of real life. How far can a filmmaker distort a historical fiction before it goes beyond a work of adaptation and becomes a lie?

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, no sign of any desire but to give the people what they want. He builds his Oscar contenders from prefabricated kits…

… and the Oscars love a crowdpleaser. Like last year’s formulaic Best Picture award-winner — Gladiator — A Beautiful Mind has a big star, a big performance, a familiar and safe story, and a big sentimental climax. And the Academy has proven time and time again that a movie with a mentally challenged hero will win awards: Shine, My Left Foot, Rain Man, Forrest Gump, Good Will Hunting. So, while landmark films from visionary artists — like Gosford Park by Robert Altman, Mulholland Drive by David Lynch, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by Peter Jackson — are more likely to be remembered as the major motion picture events of 2001, Ron Howard’s all-American piece of fast food has taken home the Oscar for Best Picture.

Hooray for Hollywood.

Director – Ron Howard; writer – Akiva Goldsman; based on the book by Sylvia Nasar; director of photography – Roger Deakins; editors – Mike Hill and Dan Hanley; music – James Horner; production designer – Wynn Thomas; producers – Brian Grazer and Ron Howard; released by Universal Pictures. Starring: Russell Crowe (John Forbes Nash Jr.), Ed Harris (Parcher), Jennifer Connelly (Alicia Nash), Paul Bettany (Charles), Adam Goldberg (Sol), Judd Hirsch (Helinger), Josh Lucas (Hansen), Anthony Rapp (Bender) and Christopher Plummer (Dr. Rosen). 129 minutes. Rated PG-13.
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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.


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