Beautiful Mind, A

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

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

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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