This year A BEAUTIFUL MIND celebrates its 20th anniversary. In the years since its release and eventual oscar win for Best Picture it’s been largely forgotten by the public and unfairly labeled by many of todays film writers as forgettable oscar bait, overly saccharine and heavily criticized for taking creative license with it's source material (something that many other films get praised for doing). Read ahead for a look back at one of my all time favorite films. (SPOILERS AHEAD)
Russel Crowe is brilliant as the schizophrenic genius John Nash.
A BEAUTIFUL MIND was first a biography of the mathematician John Nash written by Sylvia Nasar in 1998. Producer Brian Grazer quickly purchased the film rights after reading about the book in a Vanity Fair article. Ron Howard, Grazer’s producing partner at Imagine Entertainment was brought on to direct and Akiva Goldsman was hired to adapt the screenplay.
The first time I saw A BEAUTIFUL MIND ended up becoming one of the most memorable in theater viewing experiences of my life. I was just about to turn 14 when one of my closest friends invited me to a special preview screening of the film. My friends brother had worked as a production assistant on the shoot in New York and Princeton, New Jersey and had gotten tickets for his family and a guest. My friend hyped it up as being one of the biggest releases of the year and I was going to have the opportunity to see it before the masses.
My friends parents picked me up and we drove to United Artists Movieland in Yonkers, New York. Upon arriving later than intended, we witnessed a long line that was very quickly being ushered in. My friends brother stood at the entrance waiting for us with the tickets. We made it to our seats just in time as the Universal Logo rolled onto the screen. Immediately the vocals of Charlotte Church and James Horner haunting score sucked me in as the three different logos were unveiled. A promising setup for something magical and mysterious that we were about to witness. There was an exciting buzz in the air.
Our first introduction to John Nash (Russel Crowe) is that of a strange loner who sees the world through a mathematical prism. At his freshman year orientation at Princeton he breaks the ice with a fellow classmate by telling him there’s a mathematical explanation for how bad his tie is. The scene serves as the introduction to what will become Nash’s group of friends at the school; a wonderful ensemble of actors that included Josh Lucas, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp and Jason Gray-Stanford in the prime of their youth. The camaraderie they share is astonishingly natural and memorably help establish Nash’s oddness in comparison to the others in his early college years.
Nash moves into his dormitory and is greeted by his inebriated roommate Charles Hermann (Paul Bettany) who is the perfect counter to Nash’s studiousness. In time, the two develop their own bond despite such differing characteristics. Charles helps loosen Nash up during his hardcore quest to find a “truly original idea” that will propel him above the other students and contribute a valuable new idea to the field of math and science.
I still vividly recall the audience back in 2001 giggling at all of Nash’s awkward moments wether it was a physical misstep or a slap in the face from a girl at the bar that he was trying to pick up. Crowe very quickly won the audience over with his endearing socially inept charm. There was something so genuine about his drive to succeed while his social skills took a back seat.
After Nash’s long struggle through the first act to find that truly original idea, he finally has a breakthrough that will launch his career at MIT and make him a notable name in the field of Game Theory and Economics. I can still recall the original awe I experienced at a beautiful transition shot that takes us through almost an entire year of Nash’s life as he works on his theory. It is still one of the best examples of subtle visual effects and how powerfully they can enhance the storytelling if used properly.
Roger Deakins work as cinematographer shines no less bright in this film as it does in any other. The pairing of Howard’s vision and Deakin’s ability is synergistic. Add in James Horner score and you get moments of truly exhilarating cinema magic. The score’s power and haunting mood is easily Horner’s greatest work among a slew of legendary credits. Here is one of my favorite sequences where all the major artistic contributors skills are on full display.
Once Ed Harris’s character enters the story the film grows increasingly more sinister and suspenseful. Crowe starts appearing more disheveled on screen, more disturbed. I would learn soon after that the film was shot in chronological order as much as possible to help Crowe realistically portray the gradual deteriorating attributes of Nash’s schizophrenia.
When I first witnessed the devastating scene where we realize that John Nash has been experiencing delusions, it took me some time to actually believe it. I remember sitting in my chair and thinking that Christopher Plummer’s character Dr. Rosen was in fact a Russian Spy who had captured Nash and that they were lying to him. The viewer, like Nash can easily doubt it and it takes scene after scene for the horrible truth to sink in. Unlike many other movie twists it isn’t blasted in your face tactlessly in the third act. It comes halfway through and there is still plenty more of Nash’s journey to go through after this huge revelation.
By this point in the film Jennifer Connelly’s character Alicia is married to John and she must now deal with this new devastating development and support him as his wife. Connelly is exceptional in the role and she rightfully won the best actress oscar that year. The struggle Alicia endures morphs the story from a paranoid thriller into a drama about the power of true love in the face of extremely difficult challenges. Alicia is John’s anchor throughout and the strength of their love is what helps gets John through his darkest days.
I have seen many critics over the years take issue with how involved these delusional characters and events were and that they were not true to what Nash actually experienced. I have always found that argument very confounding. Seeing things played out cinematically was a perfect way to explore the depths of how intensely real the delusions of schizophrenia are. While they may not have been exactly what Nash experienced, a filmmaker has to find a way to make things watchable and not flat and boring. Literary license is always at play with true stories and what better a medium to explore such a frightening mental disorder and the captivating story that went along with it.
In the third act we watch as Nash ages and deals with the remnants of his disorder. There’s a montage sequence that I find truly heart-wrenching and evocative. Horner’s score again plays an important part and it perfectly captures the sense of time passing while small but important progression in Nash's mental state are made.
The film ends on Nash receiving the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for which he was awarded in 1994 for his contributions to Game Theory, a true high point and culmination of his life and career.
A BEAUTIFUL MIND not only holds up beautifully 20 years later but is an even better film than I remember seeing back in Yonkers in 2001. I still remember claiming the film as “Really, really good” while walking out and talking to my friend. Now I would say it’s “Really, really great."
To this day A BEAUTIFUL MIND remains Ron Howard’s masterpiece. A deeply inspired work and a model for effective and emotional mainstream filmmaking.