FEB 2002

A Beautiful Mind
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly

When considering A Beautiful Mind we must think about its supposed basis in fact. Any work that takes a set of characters and events drawn from reality and places them into a coherent narrative will be most rewardingly analyzed as a work of fiction. Most rewarding at least from our perspective as people who hope to have our lives transformed and enriched in some great or small way by the cinematic stories we consume. Well-constructed fiction has a unique ability to instill in us a deep and visceral sense of the truth held in its messages. Even journalists and documentarians routinely "narrativize" their subject matter, telling "stories" that will reach audiences on an emotional level in addition to the cognitive one reached by "facts." Through various degrees of fictionalization, straightforward events and characters become vehicles for metaphors that in turn lead to broader meanings than would likely be attributed to true-life events. This sort of storytelling becomes particularly important in the present case because the filmmakers begin with the assumption that we already know how the movie ends. The particulars of the narrative that get us to that ending thus become the carriers of the meaning that one hopes will emerge when the "facts" become transformed into metaphor.

A Beautiful Mind is, as the saying goes, "based on a true story. " In considering the story it tells, however, this supposed basis in fact risks distracting viewers from its efforts at meaning making by becoming bogged down in "that really happened!" spectacular-ness, "that didn’t really happen!" quibbling, or "so that happened" ho-hum meaninglessness commonly ascribed to life’s daily events. The fictionalization of the story, however, redirects audience attention back toward meaning by constructing clear conflicts and a linear plot that brings these to emotionally powerful resolutions.

A point of particular concern—as well as much of the film’s meaning—emerges from A Beautiful Mind’s fictionalized depiction of John Nash’s diagnosed schizophrenia. I am no great friend of the US mental health establishment, but I do strongly believe that people who live difficult lives deserve respect and support as do people who try their best—and make inevitable, forgivable mistakes—to improve the conditions of those lives. Through his performance of protagonist John Nash, Russell Crowe constantly pulls us to witness his illness as complex and integrated into his character in a way that defies easy application of any stereotypes. Yet certain stereotypes attached to so-called mental illness are raised and interrogated in A Beautiful Mind. One of these might be best described with a diagram that describes the overlapping of the social groups "The Outsiders," "The Geniuses," and "The Mentally Ill" (all of which fall within the general grouping of the whole society itself):

Early on, and from then forward with increasing vigor, the narrative establishes its Nash at the intersection of all three sets. This clearly appeals to the cultural stereotype that first condemns original thinkers to marginalization and then goes further to threaten them (and any who would aspire to their ranks) with incarceration in mental institutions and the attendant tortuous consequences. Fortunately, however, the film questions this oppression in substantial depth.

One of the major threads of A Beautiful Mind is an exploration of the impact on males of a culture in which social recognition of personal worth emerges only in the wake of substantial achievement—achievement particularly in the pursuits of "work" and "sex." The message emerges that these two pursuits—held out by the film’s authority figures as paramount—pale in comparison to the more humanistic pursuit of developing and acknowledging co-operative connections with people of both genders and all ages in a community setting. The film uses Nash’s position of extreme marginalization to bring into relief the often-invisible struggle that men face to emerge from the isolation of work- and sex-obsessed lives. Nash struggles with notable anguish in pursuit of the work that his academic position requires of him, and becomes the butt of his peers’ jokes in his failings with women. The film even suggests that these pressures mount in a parallel and causal relationship with his eventually diagnosed mental illness.

When Nash’s mental and emotional states reach their low points we witness a telling juxtaposition of images. First Nash wonders aloud to a former classmate what else there is in life apart from work and then the film cuts to a heartbreaking image of Nash staring blankly into space while holding his crying infant son. His obsession with achievement-at-work has utterly obliterated his ability to achieve human connection at even the most fundamental level of parent-offspring. In a notable way he has betrayed the academic achievement that had, in large part, defined the course of his life to this moment. At the end of his struggle to come up with a truly original thesis for his PhD, he had revised Adam Smith’s hypothesis that when each person acts entirely in his or her self-interest it brings about the best results for all concerned to say instead that each must also act in the interest of the group to bring about the best result for both one’s self and others. By focusing only on his own strivings for recognition and assuming such recognition could only come through achievement in a sort of social vacuum he had failed to heed his own "governing dynamic"—as he had labeled it. He embarks on a deliberate project to connect within a community that more simply measures recognition in caring friendships. This paves the way for his journey back to relative health and stability—and ultimately his journey to the ultimate recognition found in winning the Nobel prize. In a sense he achieves his own best result by at last taking into account the interest of the group in co-ordination with his own self-interest.

As a solution to Nash’s problem of schizophrenia, however, this journey presents a problem in potentially reinforcing another stereotype of mental illness. This stereotype, fortunately becoming less prevalent, invites one to believe that if those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness would just try harder they could get healthy. A Beautiful Mind treads a thin line: on the one hand it invites this stereotype with its position of "there is more than one solution to any problem" (which valiantly calls into question the iron-clad pronouncements of mental health experts), while on the other hand it works toward tearing the stereotype down by demonstrating that Nash’s striving toward health is only effective when combined with the efforts of the community that he builds around himself. The film offers us the chance to take its parable of Nash’s journey from isolated failure to communitarian triumph and use it to enrich our own lives.

FEB 2002

Signed Elements © Individual Authors
Unsigned Elements © Agenda Publications, LLC