A Beautiful Mind

Published January 18, 2002

EPPC Online

Although I was moved and charmed and entertained by it (hence the one-star rating), I have my doubts about A Beautiful Mind. As others have noted, the movie considerably prettifies the life of its victim-hero, John Nash (Russell Crowe), a brilliant mathematician who went nuts but later won the Nobel prize anyway. It leaves out his homosexual experiences, his illegitimate child, his divorce from Alicia (Jennifer Connolly), the woman here presented as being faithful to him through thick and thin, and even the nature of the theory for which he won the Nobel is said to have been misstated. Quite so much of the Hollywood treatment puts rather a strain on one’s first principles of reviewing, which demand that a movie be accepted on its own terms. Still, nobody has attempted to represent this one as a documentary, and it is reasonable if not necessarily tasteful or prudent to make its subject, for cinematic purposes, into a fictional character.

But even granting that the picture is not about the actual John Nash but another Princeton mathematician with the same name and affliction, here are three things that make me doubtful.

First, cinematic portraits of genius are always hokey, and they always succumb to the temptation, natural enough in a visual medium, I suppose, of making human achievement look like conjuring and not what it almost invariably is, which is a long, hard slog dogged by trial and error. I can’t help but see the ridiculousness of having the skeptical Professinger Helinger (Judd Hirsch) take a sheaf of papers from the eager young Nash, spend five seconds poring over it, and then say: “You do realize this flies in the face of a hundred and fifty years of economic theory? With a breakthrough of this magnitude, I’m confident you will get any placement you like.”

Second are the anachronisms, which are inexcusable in a movie set in the relatively recent past. Charles (Paul Bettany), Nash’s roommate, suggests that they go out for pizza and beer — this supposedly in 1947. But pizza was introduced as an exotic delicacy in this country only in the 1950s. Likewise, a young lady of the period would very likely have slapped a man who made, as Nash does here, a blatantly indecent proposal, but she is hardly likely to have dismissed him, as this one does, by saying: “Have a nice night, a******!” When the charming Miss Connolly’s Alicia, destined to become Mrs Nash, shows her mettle by asking some workmen, circa 1953, to cease their jackhammering so that her mathematics class can have their windows open in the sweltering summer heat, the wielder of the jackhammer replies, “Not a problem!” — an expression which dates from at least twenty years later.

Third and most importantly, I doubt the film’s central premiss: namely that a man can will himself out of paranoid schizophrenia. Surely, if he could get so far outside his delusions as to recognize them as delusions he wouldn’t be having delusions in the first place? There is a delightful scene here in which Nash asks a passing student if he can see a stranger who has just accosted him. On being assured that he can, Nash apologizes to the stranger. “Forgive me. I’m always suspicious of new people.” On another occasion he speaks directly to one of the fantasy people who haunt him, knowing he is a fantasy: “You’ve been a very good friend to me, but I won’t talk to you again. I just can’t.”

I respond with very mixed feelings when Nash says to these figures, “I know you’re not real.” Anyone who has ever been close to a schizophrenic must have thought to himself: Why don’t you say just that to your voices? The trouble is that they never do. Or never, possibly, until now. I want to believe in Mr Nash, but am on my guard, always, against the fatal tendency of wish-fulfilment. I have my doubts that Ron “Opie” Howard is on his guard, or has fully thought through the implications of such a case history. Doesn’t it, for instance, call into question the whole metaphor of “mental illness” — illness being defined precisely by the fact that you cannot will yourself out of it?

Having said all this, however, I must say that I found the film a persuasive and moving portrait of a lonely man (“I don’t much like people, and they don’t much like me,” he frankly acknowledges) whose unconscious mind invents imaginary friends for himself, and then lots of imaginary enemies. Howard’s achievement is to make us briefly share in Nash’s delusions. When Christopher Plummer’s Dr. Rosen says that “The nightmare of schizophrenia is not knowing what’s true” it comes with an extra little jolt of irony because at the time he says it, we don’t know if he is true, or at least if he is what he represents himself as being. Likewise, when Parcher (Ed Harris), the government agent who employs Nash as a breaker of Soviet codes remarks disapprovingly of his marriage that “I told you attachments were dangerous,” the words take on added meaning in the light of subsequent events.

Attachments are dangerous for those who are engaged in secret and sensitive work with national security implications, but they are also dangerous for those who have come to depend on paranoid delusion — dangerous both to the delusion and to those unlucky enough to have become attached when the delusion comes between them. Both Mr Crowe and Miss Connelly do an excellent job in showing us the havoc wreaked by such delusions on their marriage, and when Nash offers his tribute to her unfailing and ultimately healing love and fidelity on the platform at the Nobel ceremony, we hardly mind that it didn’t happen that way. Maybe none of it did. Maybe it is all but meaningless to say that “It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical conclusions can be found.” (Religious believers might be able to scrape a meaning out of it, though only with difficulty.) But if anything like this did happen, or could happen — as we are momentarily prepared to believe that it could — it would happen through such a love.

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