Winner '01:
First Saw It:
A Beautiful Mind
January 4, 2002, at the Hoyts Pyramid Mall in Ithaca, NY
Bridesmaids: Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge!
My Vote: The Fellowship of the Ring, just barely edging out Gosford Park
Overlooked: Mulholland Drive, Amores perros, Ocean's Eleven, A.I. Artificial Intelligence

A Beautiful Mind
Reviewed in January 2002
Director: Ron Howard. Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Paul Bettany, Christopher Plummer, Adam Goldberg, Josh Lucas, Anthony Rapp, Judd Hirsch, Vivien Cardone, Austin Pendleton, Josh Pais, Alex Toma. Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman (based on the book by Sylvia Nasar).

Photo © 2001 Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures/
Imagine Entertainment
(Original review, updated here) Biographies of all kinds, but especially those performed as plays or films, immediately invite all sorts of pressures. Or else—and this may be a clearer avenue toward stating why I admired A Beautiful Mind, a movie that both is and isn't biographical—the reasons why an audience might attend a biographical story appear rarely to match with their reasons for liking or disliking the project. Their interest is usually keyed by some special, rare, or compelling theme in the character's life, but their ultimate estimation seems often to be predicated on more practical considerations: whether the details are "right," whether things have been left out. Filmgoers want a fiction but are quick to detect, and to reject, a lie.

I was recently reminded of this disjunction when I showed the first three sequences from Kimberly Peirce's excellent 1999 feature Boys Don't Cry to students in my film course. The reactions elicited, both among those who already knew the film and those who didn't—were universally laudatory. A recurring notion within their praise was, "The film helps us learn about Brandon Teena's life," and yet, after I showed clips from Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdˇttir's 1998 documentary The Brandon Teena Story, a project which aspires much more than Peirce's film to communicate "objective" information, the class found different terms for their admiration of Boys Don't Cry: "You learn more first-person accounts about Brandon from the documentary, but the fictionalized version is better at suggesting what her life might have felt like. You can relate to it."

I mention this teaching experience because it helps to clarify what a film like A Beautiful Mind might be up to, and it helps to adjudicate the increasingly heated debate surrounding the film's veracity. I am not positive that A Beautiful Mind helps us or even truly wants us to "learn about the life" of its subject: in this case, John Forbes Nash, the Princeton economist and mathematician who grew famous for his derivation of "game theory," a conceptual and analytical tool used across such disciplines as finance and trade, agriculture, and warfare. After all, the film begins as Nash has already entered Princeton in pursuit of his mathematics doctorate, and the film leaps over years and even decades at an instant as its narrative purpose dictates.

But what is that narrative purpose? I propose that, as my students observed about Boys Don't Cry, a primary ambition of A Beautiful Mind is to suggest what Nash's life might have felt like. For if Nash's scholastic advances, culminating in his receipt of a Nobel Prize, were responsible for winning the world's attention, the interests of the movie lie explicitly in a more private context. As communicated in Sylvia Nasar's biography, adapted into the best screenplay Akiva Goldsman ever wrote, Nash's self-conscious pursuit of genius either produced or exacerbated all sorts of costly mental compromises. Whether Nash's "schizophrenia," itself an umbrella diagnosis that includes a vast array of possible symptoms, was caused by his fierce intellectual pursuits is a hypothesis the film rejects; however, as with the Parkinson's disease that eventually overtook champ boxer Muhammad Ali, it is hard not to see a connection between the nature of Nash's disease and the strain required by his famous achievements.

Given this subject matter, the film is already a risky venture, for movies about mental illness, considered as a genre, rank among the most grotesquely rendered and frequently outlandish in Hollywood's spotted history. Ambitious but highly reductive films like The Snake Pit, Possessed, Spellbound, and A Double Life popularized the theme of psychic breakdown in the late 1940s, and many of the clichés and bromides installed in those early attempts have endured, robustly, ever after: that madness is an immediate peril to any artistic or creative temperament (Girl, Interrupted), that mental unhealth can be staved off by love, or else fueled by love's collapse (As Good As It Gets), that the real interest in mental-illness cases lies in the ingenuity with which they are treated (Awakenings, The Prince of Tides), that—and this may be the most romantic but pernicious of all—that in an insane world, the crazies are the sane ones (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, this year's K-PAX and I Am Sam). The unavoidable vagueness of such broad categories as "mental illness" or "madness" often perplexes Hollywood, which typically settles in its scenography for the juiciest possible variety of "spooky" people doing beastly or pathetic things in white corridors and badly-upholstered common rooms.

One of the first things to say in favor of A Beautiful Mind, then, even if the picture is often enough burdened by its own set of idealisms, is that it side-steps a surprising number of these snares, especially for a high-profile mainstream film. There is no question that John Forbes Nash is unwell, and that his unwellness is not endearing or easy. His doctors, friends, and family are often at a loss for solutions, and the medical establishment is not a key player in the drama anyway. In fact, it is not even clear for much of the movie that we are watching a story about mental illness; audience members like myself who have gleaned from Zeitgeist murmurings that Nash battled some internal demons may well be unaware of the severity or extent of his ailments until the film, after an artfully preserved reticence, confronts us with the fuller picture. Suffice it to say that many of the details that frustrated me about A Beautiful Mind's first hour—the implausibility of several sets, the unclear connections between certain characters in Nash's orbit, the stiltedness of the film's efforts at "visualizing" Nash's mathematical brilliance and cryptic government projects—are not just explained by the second hour, but are actually proven as necessary steps in our acquaintance with the character. It is not the case that the plot of A Beautiful Mind "twists"; it is more the case that its lens is suddenly, painfully widened from the scope of how Nash viewed his own world to the more complicated vantage of how the world saw him.

Russell Crowe's management of the Nash role, an interesting challenge after the stoic, capable Go-To Men of Gladiator and Proof of Life, is a major triumph of specific, attenuated characterization. Tricky southern Appalachian accent aside, Crowe navigates a monumental transition from playing a man who knows more than anyone else to a man who knows less, and indeed doesn't even believe what others are insisting about his life. He proves again, as in The Insider, to be uniquely gifted at playing a far older character than he really is, and he also evokes, beside his characters' more typical traits of gruff determination and virile self-propulsion, a sweetness in Nash's personality that has been missing from most of Crowe's roles since the Aussie oddity Proof, nearly a decade ago.

That a suddenly smiling, even marriageable Crowe feels, on top of everything, like a perspicacious PR move—look what happened to Ralph Fiennes's career when he refused to smile—then that quiver of cynical suspicion is not out of keeping with other dimensions of A Beautiful Mind. Indeed, doubts like these may well be warranted. Jennifer Connelly, so excellent in Requiem for a Dream, is winning raves for an admirable but easier performance here, and the film does not persuade us that her courtship with Nash would have happened with quite the swiftness or stateliness with which it is rendered: this couple, with studio-endorsed selectivity, is careful to have all their intimate conversations in stately mansions or beside sparkling streams. That key speech you've heard in all the trailers—"I need to believe that something extraordinary is possible"—sadly ranks among the least compelling of the film's dramatic climaxes. So does a final coda when the Nashes, aged into their 60s, are finally consecrated as the Great American Couple, though Connelly's back is almost always to camera to disguise a laughable makeup job. (Shame on the latex department!) Hollywood wags might even have noticed how many of A Beautiful Mind's scenes—one in Stockholm, another in Princeton's Faculty Club—are staged like dress rehearsals for dreamed-of Oscar victories.

Make no mistake, this is a film with its eye on the prize, and that's why it can't help coddling us a little bit. Love is apparently the best medicine, even for advanced delusional psychoses, and yet the durability of mental affliction, the irascibility with which unwanted visitations and unpreventable patterns return and return to the sufferer's everyday life, is frequently rendered with genuine toughness. If the film's tone alters between haunted, hand-wringing frustration and intermittent spells of calm, I suppose there are worse approximations for how a person like Nash must feel. And it is this palpable communication of the burdens of illness—both for the patient and his advocates—that should be the measure of the film's success. More than most people I know, I get ruffled when a narrative artwork banishes the kinds of issues that A Beautiful Mind's detractors complain are missing here: divorce, infidelity, and homosexuality among them. And yet, this film so squarely confesses an interest in Nash as a chance to describe a certain strain of lived experience that the overt narrowing of its biographical focus does not seem to me like a crime. (John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, to draw another comparison, is not a lesser film because it omits entirely what happened to Old Mr. Lincoln.) A different film might have been made about a wider sampling of Nash's experiences, but it wouldn't necessarily be a better film, and it certainly wouldn't be this film.

So, though I realize as I write this review how many of the films I have invoked as a comparison to A Beautiful Mind—Peirce's, Ford's, and Mann's, in particular—seem to me like superior creations, I am impressed with A Beautiful Mind for working as well as it does. Unlike many mental-illness pictures, which do well with peripheral details but fail at describing the disease, A Beautiful Mind compensates for some glop around its edges with a stunning performance and a strong, clear vision of life at its center. The film also suggests a social critique in that Nash's symptoms would surely have been more apparent (and responded to) if the entire American climate in the 1950s and 1960s weren't defined by paranoias and fanaticisms not dissimilar from Nash's own illness—when a whole nation is schizophrenic, the diagnostic term is "Cold War." Sure, Ron Howard, directing with his usual balance of facility with his actors and anonymity in his own style, has patently transformed A Beautiful Mind into something that $100 million worth of American audience members will pay to see, but the contributions of Crowe and Goldsman have guaranteed that, despite all that Universal Studios veneer, a lasting impression of credible human distress and of incredible human endurance stays with us. B

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Ron Howard
Best Actor: Russell Crowe
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Connelly
Best Adapted Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman
Best Film Editing: Mike Hill and Daniel P. Hanley
Best Original Score: James Horner
Best Makeup: Greg Cannom and Colleen Callaghan

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Ron Howard
Best Actor (Drama): Russell Crowe
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Connelly
Best Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman
Best Original Score: James Horner

Other Awards:
Directors Guild of America: Best Director
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Actor (Crowe)
Writers Guild of America: Best Adapted Screenplay
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Actor (Crowe); Best Supporting Actress (Connelly)
Satellite Awards: Best Supporting Actress, Drama (Connelly); Best Original Song ("All Love Can Be")

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