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by Ron Howard (Director)
Universal Studios, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on May 14th 2004

A Beautiful Mind

It is hard to understand why Ron Howard's movie A Beautiful Mind, the story of a Nobel Prize winning mathematician with schizophrenia, won so much praise and so many awards.  It is of course entertaining, with plenty of drama, chase sequences, mystery, and surprises, although I should mention I fell asleep during my first viewing and the second time when I was more determined to stay awake, I was yearning for it to be over after ninety minutes.  The film is two and a quarter hours long, and in his commentary, director Ron Howard explains how he had to delete many scenes in order to get it down to that length.  Of course, reducing decades of anyone's life to such a short time is inevitably absurd and requires artistic license, and it is easy to see the temptation to include more detail, but when the telling of the story includes so much distortion and sensationalism, it would be a mercy to keep it as short as possible. 

Viewing A Beautiful Mind is a strange experience for those who have read Sylvia Nassar's biography of the same name, because the two versions of John Nash's life are so dissimilar.  The film focuses on a mathematician's fascination with geometrical patterns and briefly mentions his interest in game theory, while the book goes into detail of his mathematical interests and explains his different theories and enthusiasms about a wide range of ideas.  The film shows his delusions about the cold war, his meetings with secret agents, car chases, and secret laboratories, while the book gives very little detail about Nash's delusions apart from his bizarre behavior and his letter writing to foreign governments.  The film shows Nash to be socially awkward but aggressively heterosexual, but the book chronicles his romances and liaisons with both men and women.  The film shows Nash's delusions starting when he arrives at graduate school, but the book gives no indication that those symptoms started until several years later.  The film shows his wife staying with him throughout their marriage, but the book tells of their splitting and very fractured relationship that did eventually survive.  The film shows Nash's delusions kept in control by psychotropic medication, but in fact Nash's regaining control of his life was ultimately done without medication. 

Of course, the book is not necessarily the ultimate authority on Nash's life, and Nash himself was consulted in the creation of the film.  However, the film undermines its own credibility in a number of ways that may involve minor factual points or mere stylistic devices but that collectively work to make the film clichéd and dismissible.   When Nash starts writing mathematical formulae on the windows of his dorm room, one can only groan at the absurdity of the image.  When after graduate school in the early 1950s, Nash travels to the Pentagon responding to a request to break Russian secret codes and stands in front of a large wall of numbers, which start glowing in different patterns as a way of depicting the possible codes.  Director Howard could have flashed in bold letters on the screen "GENIUS THINKING" and been no less artistically clumsy.  When soon after, there is a scene that is meant to depict Nash's delusion where a secret agent shows him a video, starting it with a little wireless remote control, the audience's credulity has already been stretched to the limit so it is hard to know whether it is meant to be taken seriously. 

The distinction between reality and imagination is one that the film meets head on in its most daring ploy of trying to bring alive Nash's delusions.  Early on in the film, we meet Nash's roommate, and later on we see the secret agent who explains to him his role in fighting communism, and it gradually dawns on the viewer that in fact these characters are figments of Nash's imagination.  It is a bold move to depict events from Nash's point of view, and it could have been a profoundly enlightening project.  Ultimately though, the move is flawed for a couple of important reasons.  First, these imaginary characters are portrayed as real people who Nash can see and physically interact with, while for most people with schizophrenia, the delusions and hallucinations are mostly auditory.  As most people know, schizophrenics hear voices.  So far from increasing people's understanding of mental illness, as both producer Brian Grazer and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman say is their aim, the film is profoundly misleading about the nature of schizophrenia.  This problem is compounded by the second flaw, that the imagined characters start off serving benign or even helpful functions for Nash at the start of the film, and only later do they start making his life more difficult.  They help to reduce his isolation and console him in his social awkwardness and rejection by others.  Now, it is true that not all voices heard by schizophrenics are persecutory, and it is even true that when the sufferer of the hallucination gets used to the voices, they can keep him or her company, and he or she may even miss them if the voices go away.  But to portray the voices as fulfilling roles of imaginary friends is to perpetuate the confusion between schizophrenia and multiple personality and dissociative disorders.  It is in dissociation that the different personalities play a functional role, while this doesn't happen in schizophrenia. 

The "Awards Edition" of the DVD features commentaries by Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman, deleted scenes, interviews with Howard, Grazer, Goldsman, and plenty of other extras.  The commentaries are profoundly self congratulatory and self-satisfied.  Howard and Goldsman both gush about how wonderful their film is and how great the acting is, while providing little insight into the creative process.  I would have liked to have known if they gave any consideration to the possibility of being more faithful to the experience of schizophrenics and simply depicting voices in Nash's head rather than fully visible people as his delusions, but they never discuss this.  They do provide some details about how they went about doing certain scenes and how the actors were selected, but they don't say anything very revealing and all too often resort to tedious cliché such as "originally this scene had a lot of dialog but we decided that less is more." 

As one of the films that has brought more attention to mental illness than most others in recent years, A Beautiful Mind had the potential to change attitudes and increase people's understanding of schizophrenia.  Ultimately though it fails both as an artistic endeavor and as a form of public consciousness-raising.  I'd recommend it only to those in cultural studies who want to examine the ways that Hollywood distorts and even exploits mental illness in order to sell its product. 

 

Link: Reviews of Sylvia Nassar's biography A Beautiful Mind and unabridged audiobook.

 

© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.