Review of A Beautiful Mind

Marybeth and I sat down last night after visiting with my mom in rehab and watched A Beautiful Mind again. I’d seen it once before, having read the book on which the movie was based by Sylvia Nasar, a challenging but rewarding read. Marybeth had seen the movie three times already. We both wanted to watch it again, and we were glad we did. What a truly remarkable movie. We knew it was, but MB and I were both struck anew by just how remarkable it was this time around. Not only the acting—Jennifer Connelly is great and Russell Crowe simply outstanding—but the direction, the music, the choreography, the writing; every part of the movie is top notch. Definitely worth watching more than once.

I won’t get into it much here, but the movie provides ample fodder for a range of fascinating and fundamental philosophical questions: What is real? What is knowledge? But my thoughts here will dwell less on philosophy than the humanness of the film. The Nash character—a real-life mathematician who suffered from severe mental illness yet who still managed ground-breaking achievements in game theory and differential geometry, enough to earn a Nobel Prize—begins as a socially awkward misanthrope. His brusqueness and bluntness tend to be off-putting to those around him, who he acknowledges don’t care for him much. As his mental illness grows, he retreats increasingly into his own delusional world, interacting with a range of characters we eventually discover only he can see. His breakdown brings to a halt his work and puts a horrible strain on his marriage.

Deliverance comes not by getting healed of the disease but by a prodigious effort of cognitive discipline, a “diet of the mind” that refrains from indulging certain appetites. It’s a long road back, with plenty of bumps to overcome, humiliations to endure, indignities to suffer, and a particularly intractable thorn in his flesh all the while. Helping sustain his resolve is the unconditional commitment and love of his wife, whose suffering may have been nearly as intense as his; but her faithfulness and fidelity provide a model of what a marital commitment through the worst of times might look like. The Connelly-played wife admits at one point to a friend her frustration, her guilt at considering leaving, her rage at John and even God; but despite it all, she sticks with him and sees him through, even at the risk of her own safety.

The abstruse and analytic Nash’s proposal to her, before his schizophrenia had become obvious, is couched in the most dispassionate and empirical of terms—a request for measurable confirmation of her long-term commitment and the like. She jokingly responds about her need to recalibrate her girlish, romantic expectations, but accepts his proposal and loves him despite what were already his obvious idiosyncrasies and lack of social graces. It is this image of the man she married, warts and all, that sustains her commitment when his condition changes into something barely recognizable, a vision she said that transformed both him and her. That particular speech is just one of a plethora of powerful moments in the film featuring writing that is, well, beautiful.

Early on, too, Nash thinks of relationships with those of the opposite sex mainly in terms of an exchange of bodily fluids. All the Platonic pleasantries and niceties are but a necessary prerequisite to the real thing. Usually his forthrightness on this score is effective at eliciting smacks from women, but in the case of the woman who married him, she could see something else about him; and her love for him is as authentic as it proves transformative.

As a young man Nash is competitive, with a desire to stand out, be remembered, and make a difference. His attitude toward women is impersonal and dehumanizing; his mentality about teaching is that it is nothing but a waste of his time. People are distractions or means to ends or competitors to overcome. Despite his prodigious mathematical abilities, clearly his humanity needs tweaking, and Ron Howard’s direction and the powerful screenplay succeed in showing how the tragedies and pain to ensue, more than can hardly be imagined, ultimately prove effectual in making the great mathematician into a great person.

After battling his demons and disciplining his mind, Nash not only learns to cope. He begins to teach again, this time with a genuine affection for his students and a newfound sense of the importance of the vocation. (As a student he hadn’t even attended classes himself, a sign among other things of his insularity and isolation.) After earning the accolades he’d always yearned for by being granted the Nobel Prize for his work on equilibrium (not what most mathematicians insist was his considerably more impressive work on manifolds), he has stopped thinking in terms of one-upmanship or winning. He is moved to appreciate unexpected honors rather than demanding them as what he deserves. He grows to appreciate his colleagues as friends and collaborators rather than competitors. Rather than viewing women merely as sexual objects, he acquires a much deeper and more authentic understanding of relationships. In his acceptance speech of the Nobel, he celebrates the undying love of his wife as more important than numbers and reasons and the reason he’s there.

Even his understanding of mathematics seems to take on a more human touch near the end of the story. He’s overheard telling students that, contrary to what others may tell them, mathematics is art. Early in the film, his girlfriend (later his wife) admitted to being an artist herself. Her influence on him is profound, even in this. Throughout the process of his painful healing, numerous times he can be seen holding in his hand the handkerchief that she had given him on that early date, and again he extricates it from his pocket after his final speech and gives her a wave with it. The movie is a success story against all odds, a gripping narrative of mental illness, the story of a prodigy and tortured genius, but ultimately it’s a love story, and testimony of love’s power to overcome and to endure.