Beautiful Mind, A (2001): Ron Howard’s Middle Brow Oscar Winner

Despite problems of structure and tone, and some crucial omissions from Nash’s actual life, A Beautiful Mind has emerged as one of the season’s most enjoyable and popular films. Opening on Christmas Day and platforming the film has proved to be savvy marketing for this Universal release, which now plays on 1,855 screens and will go wider if the film sustains its initial commercial appeal. In its two weeks of release, the picture has amassed an impressive $40 million and will easily cross the $100 million mark.

Ron Howard’s hopeful, earnest, middle-brow sensibility informs all of his features, including the new biopicture, A Beautiful Mind.

More intensely dramatic that other films, it is the tale of genius mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., whose brilliance was undermined by a lifelong battle with schizophrenia. Continuing the career height that began with his Oscar-nominated role in The Insider, which was followed by a Best Actor Oscar for Gladiator, Russell Crowe renders a strong performance as the eccentric academic in a role that’s likely to garner him another Oscar nomination.

Though critical response has been mixed, A Beautiful Mind is a front-runner in the wide-open Oscar derby this year, likely to be nominated in at least 8 categories, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Supporting Actress for Jennifer Connelly, as Nash’s loyal wife, whose presence is the toughest, most exciting thing about a movie that otherwise suffers from an overdose of sentimentality, particularly in its last reel.

It’s rare to see an American film that captures realistically the internal workings of academic life. Last year, Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys, with Michael Douglas as an English lit professor-writer, was an artistic hit but commercial failure. Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman should be commended for finding a middle-of-the road approach to convey vital information in a vivid manner about campus life (professorships, competition, tenure) without overwhelming the viewers with dry details about mathematical equations or scientific discoveries, elements that defy visual dramatization.

In 1947, the young, handsome scientist Nash arrives at Princeton for graduate study in mathematics. In the first reel, we feel the precarious position of Nash, soon labeled “the mysterious West Virginia genius,” due to his lack of prep school legacy, old money, or blue blood, all crucial variables in facilitating a young scientist’s entry into the Ivy League. At that point, all that Nash has going for him is belief in his talent and a certain attitude–call it chutzpah.

An outsider par excellence, Nash also lacks finesse, or any manners; social niceties mean nothing to him. Neither does classroom attendance: He spends hours in the library and in his dorm obsessing about one thing: How to find and execute a truly original and brilliant idea. That Princeton’s math department is brutally competitive, and that his classmates would love nothing more than see him fail, makes Nash even more ambitious.

There’s a wonderful moment in which the aloof Nash is with his classmates in a local bar, when their reaction to a hot blonde girl grabs his attention. As Nash observes their rivalry, the idea that has been long haunting him bursts into focus. Nash’s resulting paper on game theory–the math of competition–boldly contradicts the doctrine of Adam Smith, the father of modern economics. Smith’s widely accepted thought of over a century is abruptly outdated and Nash’s life forever changes. In one of those truly rare cinematic occasions, viewers are exposed to the origins of creativity–and its effects on one man’s psyche.

Nash subsequently wins a coveted research and teaching post at MIT, but he’s still frustrated and unfulfilled. Science had played a huge role in bringing about America’s triumph in WWII, and now, as the Cold War rages, he yearns to play a strategic role in the new environment. It’s at this turbulent era that Nash’s wish is granted upon meeting a shadowy CIA officer, William Parcher (Harris), who recruits him for a top-secret assignment as an enemy code-breaker.

All of these activities are unbeknownst to his wife, Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly), a former physics student who introduces Nash to a “novel” idea that’s utterly missing from his life up until then–love. Though their marriage is good, Nash can’t confide in Alicia the dangerous project he’s involved in. But soon, the work, secrecy, and risk are beginning to take their toll on his family and on his health. He becomes furtive, obsessive, and lost in a world of dark delusions–until it becomes clear to his wife and his doctors that the mental illness he’s suffering from is paranoid schizophrenia.

Inspired by events in the life of Nash, as described in Sylvia Nasar’s book, the script details the quick ascendance of Nash, and particularly the tragedy of a scientist who makes an astonishing discovery early in life which almost–but not quite–catapulted him to international acclaim. Unfortunately, Nash’s white-hot climb into the intellectual stratosphere takes a drastic turn when his intuitive acumen is hampered by severe schizophrenia.

The film’s best chapters are the domestic ones, offering a chronicle of how Nash fights back with the help and renunciation of his loyal wife, facing challenges that have destroyed other patients. Though burdened by demons for the rest of his life, Nash is determined to find his own kind of “normalcy,” willing to combat a disease thought to be incurable and but degenerative. Through sheer will power, and drive motivated by the intoxicating demands of mathematical theory, Nash continues his work, and in 1994 received the Nobel Prize that had earlier eluded him. By that time, Nash’s insightful work in game theory has become one of the twentieth century’s most influential ideas. His celebrity status and triumphant battle has turned him into a legendary man, one who continues to pursue his work today.

In his screenplay, which represents a major step forward compared with previous assignments (Batman and Robin, Lost in Space), Goldsman has decided not to render a literal telling of Nash’s life but to delineate the architecture of his existence. Hence, Beautiful Mind is billed as a semi-fictional story, with Goldsman receiving a “written by” rather than “screenplay by” credit from the Writers Guild. But some of the tale’s omissions are glaring and peculiar, specifically Nash’s homosexual experiences. There’s only one brief scene in the film, in which the young Nash exchanges a “look” with another guy in Princeton’s halls, but no references are made to his sexuality while he was married.

This problem wouldn’t have mattered much if Howard’s direction were more subtle and nuanced. Howard is an entertainer with roots so deep in commercial TV and movies that the artist in him still struggles to come out. It may be unfair to suggest, but his films still betray his origins on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days. In Apollo 13 and The Paper, two vintage Howard works, he took messy situations and turned them into genial, uniquely American celebrations.

Not helping matters is Howard’s insistence on underlying every emotion for his viewers, neatly resolving situations and crises that call for ambiguity and untidiness, notions that simply don’t exist in his vocabulary. Though Howard likes the idea of mixing serious with comic moments, he doesn’t trust his audience to grasp changes of pace or tonality. As a result, he punches out the scenes emphatically, each making its blatant message before moving onto the next one. In Howard’s treatment, Beautiful Mind becomes an upbeat story of a man whose extraordinary will translates into a spiritual triumph against all odds. One can only speculate how a director like Martin Scorsese, who has excelled in portraying troubled, animalistic persona (Taxi Driver, Raging Bulls) would have dealt with the material’s darker notes.

That said, Howard is a compassionate director, who gets feelings onscreen as few filmmakers do, and he’s good with actors. It may not take much to get a shining performance from Crowe, but Howard deserves credit for guiding the actor. But the revelation here is Jennifer Connelly, who’s not only the story’s true heroine, but the best thing about the film. As Alicia, Connelly conveys a passionate woman who never lost the glimpse of the charismatic man she had fallen in love with. Pure love fuels her sacrificial loyalty to Nash, serving as his companion in what must have been a more turbulent journey that the film is willing to acknowledge.