Film of the Week: 'A Beautiful Mind'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  Jan. 3, 2002 at 11:42 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Jan. 3 (UPI) -- "A Beautiful Mind," which goes into wide release on Friday, is supposedly based on Sylvia Nasar's excellent biography of mathematician John F. Nash, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia from 1959 until only a few years before he received the Nobel Prize in 1994.

It's a well-acted and heart-warming movie. Yet, as an apparent frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar, "A Beautiful Mind" demands more scrutiny than critics have so far given it. Ultimately, it reveals less about the delusions of its purported subject than it does about the delusions of the modern hack screenwriter.

Akiva Goldman (writer of "Batman & Robin" and other widely despised movies) teams with the consistently competent director Ron Howard ("The Grinch") to tell audiences what they want to hear about there being only a thin line between genius and madness. "You shouldn't feel bad about not being a genius," the movie implies, "At least, hey, loony bin orderlies don't have to strap you down for your own protection." As one of Tolstoy's characters noted, "No one is satisfied with his wealth, but everyone is satisfied with his intelligence."

In reality, although many great minds are eccentric and some are manic-depressive, very few are schizophrenic. Nasar calls Nash the "tragic exception" to this rule. Nash was the rare prodigy who had already proven his genius before he began hearing from space aliens at the age of 30.

A decade earlier in 1948, Nash had arrived at Princeton to get his Ph.D. Princeton was then home to legendary thinkers such as Robert Oppenheimer and John von Neumann, heroes who had helped win World War II and were deeply involved in the Cold War. The movie, though, only alludes to this glamorous community. Unaccountably, it doesn't even show us the time Nash barged in on Albert Einstein to lecture the "Man of the Century" on how to fix his Theory of Relativity.

Goldman's script misleadingly portrays the young Nash as being a loner to the point of autism. Computer scientist John McCarthy, the co-founder of artificial intelligence, knew Nash at both Princeton and MIT. McCarthy told me, "Nash was arrogant and perhaps selfish, but he functioned in society. He came to the afternoon tea almost every day. He and I played practical jokes on each other."

At age 21, Nash wrote up his Nobel idea about game theory. He formally showed how, even without a government to set rules, a small number of business rivals could reach a stable solution that would benefit each other. This didn't refute the free-market economics of Adam Smith, as the movie claims, but extended them.

Cold War military planners instantly appreciated Nash's contribution. Although often derided as Dr. Strangelove, the RAND Corporation's nuclear strategists saw in the "Nash equilibrium" hope that there could be a stable middle ground between nuclear war and surrendering to Stalin.

After a decade of brilliance, Nash suddenly broke down in 1959.

Goldman throws out most of these facts in order to force feed us the anti-anti-communist propaganda so popular among modern screenwriters obsessed with Hollywood's blacklisting of their Stalinist predecessors. ("The Majestic," currently bombing at a theatre near you, displays the same fixation.)

In Goldman's hallucination, it is McCarthy-era paranoia that drives Nash mad. There's no mention of the extraterrestrial and religious delusions that primarily troubled the real Nash. Instead, Goldman's Nash goes bonkers worrying about Soviet spies. Since Nash was quite sane until 1959, long after Senator McCarthy's demise, Goldman moves Nash's breakdown up to McCarthy's heyday in 1953.

The other problem with "A Beautiful Mind" is that casting Russell Crowe ("Gladiator") as a twenty-year-old whiz kid is rather like having John Goodman star in the life story of jockey Willie Shoemaker.

First, the 37-year old Crowe probably hasn't looked like he was 20 since he was 16. While most movie stars seem to age about eight years on screen for every ten on the calendar, Crowe is a notorious boozer and brawler who tours with his own garage band. He's been living Rock Star Years, which go by almost as quickly as Dog Years.

Second, although Crowe looks strikingly like Nash, he differs in one key aspect. The mathematician is, literally, a high-brow, with an enormous forehead that makes him look intellectual. The high school dropout movie star, in contrast, has a rather Neanderthalish brow ridge that adds to his aura of brutish masculinity.

Crowe is a genius at portraying the nobility of stupidity, as in "Gladiator" and "L.A. Confidential," where he played strong, simple heroes ensnared by devious conspirators.

Crowe is not, however, a genius at portraying geniuses. In "A Beautiful Mind," Crowe has one superbly tragic moment as he realizes that his anti-psychosis medicine has left him too dim-witted to do mathematics. Otherwise, despite all his strong efforts, this is not the role Crowe was born to play.

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