A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001)

A_Beautiful_Mind_PosterThis film was both wondrous and painful for me to watch. I was in tears for pretty much the second half of it. Some of it hit too close to history and to home for me. The film tells the story of John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economic, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and delusional episodes. I didn’t know anything about Nash, and the story of his life was fascinating to me. I have read some criticisms centered on a few key pieces left out, which were also interesting. What caught me so off guard about this film was the reveal. It took me quite a ways into the film to fully grasp that we had started the beginning of the movie seeing things as Nash himself would see them. The line between reality and the imagined was quite blurry, and Russell Crowe did an impeccable job portraying this character.

It is difficult for me to watch any film where someone struggles so much to fit in. Where someone is so different that even day to day life is a painful slog. In this story, Nash’s wife Alicia Larde (played by the brilliant Jennifer Connelly of Labyrinth fame) also shares in the struggle. Despite an enormous love between them, his afflictions are in a number of scenes more than she can grapple with – more than anyone could, truly. I found myself curious about some of the specifics of how Nash handled his illness. It is a striking notion to me that the very medication that would help him function in the world would also strip him of some of his most powerful gifts, and truly brought to mind a phrase I’ve held dear when thinking about these kinds of issues – the notion that Nash is “touched by fire.” This is a concept I encountered when I first learned of the great group The Icarus Project, a DIY, grassroots effort to reconceptualize mental illness. I would recommend checking it out here: http://theicarusproject.net/.

The main strength of A Beautiful Mind is it’s ability to portray mental illness from the perspective of the afflicted, a difficult task because it is based around beliefs and states of mind that by their very nature do not correspond to rational thought or logic. I understand that the exact nature of the hallucinations in the film don’t correspond to the symptoms experienced by the real Nash. I can grant this license in that the film achieves its goal, which is not being a psychiatric case study. Rather, it takes the viewer inside the mind of a delusional individual. While the cloak and dagger intrigue of rogue Soviet spies may clue the audience in that we are not watching an objective reality (especially for those of us who went in familiar with the movie’s premise), Nash’s relationship with Charles sets us up for the big revelation at the film’s midpoint. What has seemed entirely real to Nash – and to us – is devastatingly revealed to be illusory. We have to be brought along with Nash’s delusions one way or another.

A second viewing allows the audience to observe Nash’s behavior in a more detached way. Yelling from a rooftop, throwing things out the window. Pop culture has treated mental illness as a subject of great levity, but I doubt people whose lives have been derailed by these afflictions enjoy the joke. Nonetheless, their unexplainable behavior can inevitably provoke bemusement in those who encounter them. When Nash delivers his line “The prodigal roommate revealed,” it is exactly the type of puzzling statement one could hear from a mentally ill person, one that seems to hold meaning for them but is forever beyond the comprehension of the listener.

Mouse and I spent some time reading about the real life of Nash, and exploring ways in which the film did or did not deviate. We did learn that in their real relationship, John had an illegitimate son, intense relationships with other men (which Alicia denied were sexual in nature), and a darker side to his interactions with her than is revealed in the film. He wrote a short autobiography that is frank about his mental illness, but does not mention his love for his partner.

I did feel as if the film may have emotionally misled us somewhat when I learned all of this, though I also cannot fault its creators for perhaps choosing to paint as empathetic a version of Nash as possible. Mental illness is a delicate subject to try to address as frankly as this movie does. I thought the way in which the film allowed the viewer into the mind of the person affected was groundbreaking on a host of levels, and I suppose that ultimately that was where they chose to focus. It did lead me to be curious about the couple themselves, particularly in their older years – and we soon discovered that the two died together, in a car crash.

By my count, eight of the films we’ve watched hitherto are dramatizations of historical persons or events and they all, to some extent, have distortions, omissions or take some other liberties with facts. At this point I can’t malign a movie for doing so. It’s unavoidable in dramatic retelling. History as an academic discipline is always open to revision, and incorporates new information. “Art,” said Picasso “is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Caveat emptor, I say; enjoy the story and if it intrigues you, go find the real story behind the dramatization.

A Beautiful Mind is built on Crowe’s portrayal of Nash and this is definitely the golden age of his career. Last I checked in on him he was looking like the kid who regretted signing up for the school musical, but his work here resulted in his third Best Actor nomination in as many years, winning the previous year with Best Picture Gladiator.

As a Best Picture winner, A Beautiful Mind is obviously a career high for Ron Howard. From what I’ve seen of his output, Howard doesn’t strike me as the most artistically daring individual to stand behind a camera, but he certainly does make quality Hollywood entertainment. I do always think of him when people discuss the tragic fate supposed to await all child actors. It didn’t work out for the kids from Lost Boys, but why don’t people mention Howard, or Jodie Foster?

I can’t abide such a swing at Jodie Foster! Ha. Truth be told, I didn’t know Ron Howard was involved in this film until just reading this now. I’ve thought about the film a lot in the days following our viewing of it. To that end, I would say it is an indelible work that sticks with the viewer. Mouse is right about enjoying a film such as this and then looking to learn more about the truth behind it. If I had never watched this film, I would not have read up on its protagonist and I am glad I did. I understand the taking of license – I guess it just troubles me to think that often movies like these will be viewed almost as documentaries. I almost wish they carried a disclaimer sometimes, but maybe that’s not realistic. Either way, I thought the work was gorgeous, painful and haunting – three of my favorite qualities in a film. I highly recommend it.

Richie Cunningham turned out okay after all, I guess.

One of the more moving segments of the film for me comes later on, when Nash has, through the compassion of his former academic rival, taken to hanging around the Princeton library, working on mathematics. In a series of scenes, Nash visibly ages and the clothes and hairstyles tell us we’re moving forward by many years. As he passes a group of students, they mock his shuffling walk and odd mannerisms. Coming at this point in the movie, it’s more than just sanctimonious finger wagging at thoughtless brats or a ploy for pity. It’s food for thought. Next time I see the guy on the street yelling at garbage cans, maybe I’ll remind myself of that scene where the obnoxious kids never realize the oddball they’re making sport of has produced Nobel Prize level work.

Well, it’s time to wrap up this memory trip back to the sad days of my own quarter life crisis. A Beautiful Mind is certainly a good movie, although I don’t see putting it in the upper tiers of the pantheon of groundbreaking or classic films. Maybe 2001’s notable contributions to the culture weren’t in the highbrow realm.  It was the year that saw the release of Pootie Tang and Wet Hot American Summer.

Also nominated in 2001:
Gosford Park
In the Bedroom
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Moulin Rouge!

Next film: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)

 

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