A Beautiful Mind: A Beautiful Story

I don’t have one of those amazing talents for math. I’m not terrible at it if I apply myself, sure, but I could never look at numbers and truly understand them at first glance. I’ve always wanted to, though. I’d always wanted an elite mathematical mind, but it wasn’t meant to be. Not that I couldn’t practice it now if I wanted to, but who has time for that?

But, I never did. And that’s okay. If I’m not a mathematical genius, that’s fine by me at this point in my life.

When I saw that A Beautiful Mind was next on this list of films, I had two general expectations. The first is that I’d come face-to-face with my math failures, or perceived failures, at least, yet again. I can handle this. The second was that, without having even seen the film, I felt like I already knew what it was all about. I knew it would be about a genius from nowhere, struggling to find recognition, seeing his true monstrous ego take shape when he finally hit his stride, and then watching his inevitable downfall and rebirth.

I was right on both of these accounts, but that was just in the first hour or so of the film. The rest of the movie toyed with, chewed up, and then spat out those expectations like some bored lion. It then called me a bad name and took my lunch money.

In all seriousness, though, A Beautiful Mind, directed by Ron Howard and starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, tells an amazingly tragic and inspirational story about love, family, betrayal, and a nearly impossible struggle against your own mind when it feeds you nothing but lies. I can’t possibly detail the numerous complexities and difficult problems posed by the film. You’d just have to see it to believe it.

While I was watching the movie with my girlfriend Laci, the one question I kept asking myself was this: “What’s the truly price of being a genius?” I hope to answer that within this blog.

Now, for the rest of the movie.

Plot
A Beautiful Mind follows the life of John Nash (played by Russell Crowe), a brilliant mathematician from the hills of West Virginia. The film starts with Nash arriving at Princeton University, a recipient of a prestigious scholarship. In a struggle to surpass his peers, Nash eventually comes up with an original and transformative idea on economics.

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The paper launches his career, and after he helps the Department of Defense break a Soviet code, he gets an offer from a secret lab run by William Parcher (Ed Harris) to help beat the Communists.

Along the way, Nash meets and then marries Alicia (Jennifer Connelly). Soon after helping Parcher, Nash starts behaving erratically and growing more and more paranoid. Nash is tracked down and ends up in a mental hospital where he’s diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Parcher, his college roommate, and even his secret job with the government lab is a lie, told to him by his brain.

It’s obvious what a major theme in the story is while watching A Beautiful Mind: overcoming long odds and hardships. But I think it goes deeper than just that. After all, overcoming an enemy that is literally in your own head is akin to climbing Everest with no clothes on. It’s certainly not impossible, but it’s just really, really difficult.

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As for the other plot points in the film, it should be noted that while the movie is biographical and tells the story of the real-life John Nash, many parts of the movie have been fictionalized for the screen. As is the case with many other films, I’m okay with this and I’ll hit on this again in the next section.

It should also be note that while the story of Nash begins in 1947, he and Alicia only recently left us, with both of them passing away in the same car accident in 2015. 1.

Writing
A Beautiful Mind won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 74th Academy Awards in 2002. And, like many other Best Picture winners, this one is based off a book. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman based the story loosely on Sylvia Nasar’s 1998 book A Beautiful Mind.

This film being about a mathematician, it can be easy to get carried away with the math. But watching A Beautiful Mind doesn’t mean that you have to have a doctorate in math to understand it; everything is explained very simply. Some have criticized that it’s too simple, but I don’t mind it.

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Another challenge that was one of the film’s shining points was the portrayal of mental illness for a visual medium. Showing a condition as complex and damaging as Nash’s is very hard. Yet, it works. Sylvia Nasar believed that, while the movie isn’t a literal telling of Nash’s story, it still captures the essence of his struggle. And, for that reason, the film works. 1.

Sound
James Horner, a fabulous composer, composed the score for A Beautiful Mind. Every Horner score is brilliant and this one is no different, receiving a Best Original Score nomination.

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Alternating from light to dark, and everything in between, the score sends the viewer to emotional highs and lows. I recommend this score and other Horner scores, like Titanic.

Set Design
Greg Cannom and Colleen Callaghan both received an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup. Throughout A Beautiful Mind, the makeup is one of many shining stars. This is particularly true as the film’s timeline wears on. By the end of it, John and Alicia are in their waning years. I could hardly tell that it was Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly under the disguise of old age.

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As for the rest of the movie’s physical world, the set is perfect. From a suburban house to a college campus, secret government lab, and a mental hospital, the set design is diverse and wide-ranging. The design of the world was on point. 1.

Cinematography
I’ve written numerous times that the camera helps to show perspective, whatever it may be. The camera is, afterall, the audience’s eyes into the world of the film.

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A Beautiful Mind was a spectacle in perspective and the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, helped out. Filling the film with dramatic pushes and pulls, Deakins thrusts us right into Nash’s shoes from the start. Camera movies are generally slow and purposeful. But these are quick and a little chaotic, giving us a fast track to Nash’s perspective. This is jarring but incredibly effective. 1.

Acting
Russell Crowe plays Dr. John Nash and his work earned him a Best Actor nomination. This nomination follows a win in the same category a year earlier for his role as Maximus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (which also won Best Picture). Without a doubt, Crowe was at the top of his game.

In all honesty, Crowe defied some of my expectations about his ability as an actor with this role. He plays Nash with such ease, adding in great visual cues and nervous tics that help John Nash pop off the screen and into our hearts. It’s hard to believe he played a gladiator a year before.

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Nash is a genius, of course, and he’s generally not great in social situations or with most women. But it’s not for a lack of trying. He relies on his genius to help him skate through life. He’s a badass math dude and he knows it too, especially after his Princeton days. His layers are numerous in this film, though. He becomes much more than a math jock. Peeling them back one-by-one, we see that Nash is stubborn and enigmatic. But he alone must fight the visions in his genius head, and the fight is what defines him.

Jennifer Connelly plays Alicia Nash, his wife, and she’s outgoing and brilliant. She matches her husband’s will, rising above the torture mental illness dishes out and finds her own strong will along the way. Connelly won her only Oscar for this role, taking home Best Supporting Actress.

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Alicia must contend with demons of her own, sometimes languishing in self-doubt and pity, but she is the wife of a very sick man. She sees her struggle as a necessary one. She’s undyingly faithful and loyal to John, loving him for her entire life, even when the going gets tough. Her struggles are side-by-side with John’s, and because of that, as well as Connelly’s portrayal of her, makes the couple one of the strongest married couples in all of cinema. 1.

Directing
At the front of this great train is the director Ron Howard. Howard, the former star of the Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, who also directed Apollo 13 just a few years earlier, has had a career that is somewhat reflective of Nash’s: brilliant at times, not so brilliant at others. But this film could be his magnum opus, or his masterpiece, and he’s at the top of his game with this film.

First, and probably most impressively, A Beautiful Mind is a master class in perspective. When Nash is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, there was a brief time in which I almost didn’t believe it. Instead, I thought that he was captured by the Soviets. Howard portrays John Nash as trustworthy during the first half of the film that his shift from trustworthy source to unreliable character is so stunning and jarring that I’ve never seen anything like it. Then the use of Alicia’s perspective when she discovers the lies of John’s life prove he stance to be both sympathetic and legitimate.

Second, from a thematic side, A Beautiful Mind is every bit as inspiring as any other underdog story. John’s struggle, and eventual acceptance of his condition is jaw dropping. It takes Nash years to even admit that huge chunks of his life are a lie, and more years to learn to ignore those visions. Nash is a man that’s betrayed by the organ that he relies on the most, the one that has given him everything, and the one that’s taking it all away. His mind is a variable in an equation where one shouldn’t even exist, and that’s terrifying to me and to him, too. If a person can’t trust their own brain, what or who can they trust?

Then comes the redemption. A man that’s struggled and fought past his own visions for his entire life, finally gets the recognition that he deserves, winning the Nobel Prize in 1994. He achieves not only success through his work in mathematics, but is also successful in his view of himself. He grows to be a confident man, perceiving his reality in its fullest and its entirety. He loves every minute of his life after he learns to ignore his visions and accepts his own flaws and shortcomings. The journeys to that end for each one of us is never easy, for sure, but it’s one that most of us must make throughout the course of our own lives. John Nash started as a gifted man with a super-human abilities to do math and spot patterns. He ends it as a human being, having achieved everything in life that makes him truly human. 1.

Bonus Points

I’m going to give a bonus point to the writing, acting, and directing.

Final Score: 10/10

Oscar Facts
A Beautiful Mind won the 74th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 24, 2002 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out Godsford Park, In the Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and Moulin Rouge! for Best Picture. The award was presented by Tom Hanks and accepted by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, producers. In total A Beautiful Mind was nominated for eight awards, winning four, the most of the night.

Denzel Washington was the first African American man to win Best Actor since 1963 for his role in Training Day. Likewise, Halle Berry became the first ever African American woman to win Best Actress for Monster’s Ball. Jim Broadbent took home Best Supporting Actor for his role in Iris. The ceremony was the first one to take place in the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, a venue where the ceremony is still held, although the name has changed to the Dolby Theatre. The awards were hosted by Whoopi Goldberg for the fourth time.

Final Thoughts
It’s great to be back after a brief hiatus. Next week, I take a look at Chariots of Fire from 1981. After that, it’s Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Moonlight, and In the Heat of the Night.

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