Deep Outside SFFH - Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

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A film by Ron Howard
Written by Akiva Goldsman (Lost in Space, Batman and Robin)
Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, and Paul Bettany.

By now it's probably not exactly news to movie-goers that the underpinnings of the new Russell Crowe flick, A Beautiful Mind, won't bear the closest scrutiny in some respects. The film purports to chronicle the life of mathematician John Nash and his battle with schizophrenia, up to and including his winning of the Nobel Prize in 1994. The movie is a story of alternate realities such as Philip K. Dick might have constructed. On the level of fiction, it works wonderfully well. Crowe, Harris, and Connelly are damn near perfect on the screen. These people bring professionalism and subtlety to their performances, and are a joy to watch. The script, however, would appear to be another matter.

Hollywood is a land where flacks will go to any length to make a sale. I don't know what Ron Howard was saying in the meetings he must have had with the honchos at Universal, but being the graceless cynic that I am, it's easy to make a few guesses.

"Look guys," says Ron Howard, "2001 is the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize Awards. And I've got the perfect story about a guy who won the prize but was schizophrenic and lived like a homeless man. I can get Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly to play John Nash and his wife."

The Hollywood honchos like the sound of this, because Crowe is the hunk du jour and Connelly looks like a million bucks, and the storyline brings an egghead down to the level of a Hollywood honcho. But then they hear from Howard that John Nash not only heard voices and walked around in a daze half the time, he was also a part-time homosexual who ran afoul of the law in California and was subsequently bounced out of a teaching position at MIT. But wait, there's more. On the side, Nash had a child who he essentially abandoned; he saw messages from aliens in the New York TIMES; and he was so nasty to students in the classes he taught that he would deduct 25 points from their exams if they didn't write their names properly.

"Holy shit," say the honchos. "We want this film to be sympathetic to Nash! If we start saying what a rump-wrangling elitist power-tripping prick he really was, we'll be cutting our own throats. Plus we don't want Crowe to be doing bisexual roles—never mind that he played a gay man in that Australian movie The Sum of Us back in '94. Nobody knew him then! Forget it, Ron baby—go call Daryl Hannah and see if you can talk her into a Splash sequel or something instead."

"Aw, gee whiz," says Ron Howard in his best Opie of Mayberry voice, "what if we cut out the gay love affairs and the stuff about aliens, make the delusions more of an ongoing plot point—and basically turn the whole thing into a love story with hints of a thriller? Plus there are some great scenes of insulin shock therapy."

"Better," say the honchos, reaching for their checkbooks. "Much better."

That said, I confess that I'm still shuddering about what his sickness did to John Nash. The point can't be minimized, because in truth he suffered terribly for many years. One problem with dramatizing his pain is that almost none of the symptoms shown in the movie seem to have been what he suffered in real life. All seem to have been dramatic conveniences, cleaned-up versions of what really happened to Nash. If the intent was to dramatize the horrors of schizophrenia, then might it not have been more sensible to have chosen a subject whose life could be more accurately adapted?

Then too, there is the bigger issue of Nash's time at Princeton. The university can be lauded on the one hand for supporting him for so many years, but on the other hand, might not he have benefited from some actual treatment other than simple coddling? In Nash's own words, "I emerged from irrational thinking, ultimately, without medicine other than the natural hormonal changes of aging." So, was it necessary for the poor bastard to have lived in pain for decades? The film does not address this point. Nor does it make clear that his wife had divorced him many years before but was allowing him to live in her house to take care of him. Perhaps loyalty over time—but without romance—is a concept too complicated or intellectual for the movie audience.

Nor does the movie address the sad facts that both of his children had serious mental problems of their own. The long and short of it is, Nash was and is a brilliant man, whose mind climbs the lofty heights of mathematics where few of us are qualified to tread. His beautiful mind was off the track for a long time, but has gotten at least partly back on it through little or no external assistance. He doesn't seem to have been a particularly nice man, but the same can be said for many people who have contributed less to society. (And he seems to have a decent sense of humor. In the depths of his psychosis, Nash wandered around Princeton writing formulae here and there. On a blackboard in the basement corridor linking Jadwin and Fine Halls, this message was uncovered in 1970 (remove the 5's): N5 + I 5+ X5 + O5 + N5 = 0)

Be this all as it may, the film does a good service in helping to illustrate the horrors of mental illness. This is worthwhile, and one can't begrudge Hollywood the need to entertain. After all, we're in the theatre for that very reason. I suppose one could go and dig out Sylvia Nasar's book, on which the film is based, but the book itself seems to have its own flagrant disregard for the truth. For a deeper analysis of Nash's story from the point of view of a fellow mathematician who has himself had brushes with mental illness, check out the incisive study by Roy Lisker. In comparison, here is an article by Nasar herself.


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