Friday, April 3, 2015

A Beautiful Mind (Best Picture 2001)

A Beautiful Mind is another of the films that I never got around to seeing when it first came out. I didn't remember specifically why I hadn't seen it until I started doing research for this review. Then I was reminded that I had had an issue with this so-called "biography" that used real people's names and situations, but fictionalized or white-washed the story. Luckily for the film, when I did finally see it just recently, I had forgotten all of those issues and accidentally thought that it was wonderful.

John Nash enters Princeton in 1947. He is attracted to glowing circles where, in a very well-directed scene, we see what he sees. This is very smoothly established, but comes back to haunt us later. He thinks he has a single dorm-room, but then his room-mate Charles arrives. He is an English major, and a very odd person. Nash has no social skills and no real friends. After one particularly embarrassing social incident, he comes back to the dorm room where he and Charles throws his desk out the window. The very next day his window is fine. Nash talks to his professor about writing a thesis, and hits upon challenging Adam Smith's basic economic principles. On the strength of this paper, he gets a job with Wheeler Labs after graduation.

Eventually he is asked by the Pentagon to decode a transmission. When he does it to their satisfaction he is made an official code-breaker for the government. His handler, a super-serious man named Parcher, implants a coded microchip into his wrist. He also gives Nash a list of magazines to scour in order to pick up coded messages planted by the Soviet Union. This whole section is when the movie starts to get weird.

Socially he meets Alicia, a student at MIT, and they begin dating. She finds his personality quirks enduring, and he is definitely attracted to her. He takes her to the Governor's Ball, where he thinks men-in-black are following him. She, of course, doesn't see anything. His former room-mate Charles brings his niece for a visit and they help convince him to ask Alicia to marry him.
After Nash marries Alicia, the film starts to veer wildly into melodrama. It becomes a spy thriller, as men chase Nash and shoot at him. Eventually he is captured, and then it turns out....that he is a schizophrenic.

There was no Charles, no niece, and no Parcher. All of them were figments of Nash's imagination. None of the spy weirdness actually happened.

Nash is treated, and starts to be normal, but eventually he stops taking his medication. When that happens, Charles and the other illusions come back. However Nash, Alicia, and his psychiatrist agree that he will try to fight the disease without taking drugs. So for the rest of the film Charles, his niece, and Parcher are shown to be hovering around in the background of Nash's life, but never speak with him again. In the meantime, Nash and Alicia have returned to Princeton, where Nash is allowed to visit campus and continue his studies in mathematics. Eventually he is asked to teach classes, and after several years he is awarded the Nobel Prize for economics. His whole life he and Alicia are happy but strained together, and their son grows up to be a normal, well-adjusted man.

Which is all well and good, except that the real John Nash had dalliances with other men, fathered an illegitimate child before he met Alicia, was divorced from Alicia in 1963, and only ever had auditory delusions, not visionary delusions. In other words, he didn't have an imaginary room-mate or spy-master. And his son was also schizophrenic. And there was no ceremony for him to receive the Nobel Prize. And there is no "pen-giving ceremony" at Princeton. In other words, the film is fiction.

Which is also all well and good, but not really what the film is selling, is it?! Because John Nash is not an overtly famous person, we can watch fictions about him and not call out, "Hey, that never happened!" It's not like, say, "Lincoln The Vampire Killer" where we know it's fiction. The movie can get away with...well...lying, and we won't notice. If it had been a biopic about somebody more famous, like, say Margaret Thatcher or Stephen Hawking or Martin Luther King, Jr.....Hey! those movies were lying, too! It's sad to think that Hollywood cares so little about truth (or, conversely, so much about making money?) that they would rather lie than represent the truth. How can Hollywood get away with making these "Bio-Pics" that are not, in fact, truly biographical? (As an aside, what kind of world do we live in where the phrase "Truly biographical" exists?) That we do have to explicitly say "based on a true story" about films which clearly pick and choose their "facts" is a shame. I don't want to be a part of it; I feel dirty when I watch something that is supposedly true and then find out it that it wasn't. Specifically, about this film in particular.

Sure, the film is wonderfully made. The code-breaking sequences with the numbers and the maps and the formulas are filmed very well. As for the schizophrenia, in general once you know what you're looking for you see that the director did give several hints that not everything was what it seemed. Of course, he could have done a better job, especially in the timeline. For example, it wasn't clear how long it had been since Nash had graduated from Princeton before he got married, and then suddenly he had a baby on the way, and then he was crazy. The age of the niece is a major plot point, but it didn't seem to be built up well enough for the audience to pick up on it. Or maybe I just didn't notice it. Likewise, although Parcher is never shown talking to any other people, that was very obvious because he was always very "cloak-and-dagger." However, Charles the room-mate should have been brought up a bit more in conversations or his absences should have been more defined. I only ever really noticed he wasn't in one scene: Nash's wedding.

Anyway, the actors do a great job with the script that they have. Russell Crowe turns in another fantastic performance, this time as a man initially supremely self-confident with what he knows, and then as the broken man who literally doesn't know what he doesn't know. His sense of frustration and fear as he begins to realize just how deeply he is imagining things is very well done. Although he was nominated for Best Actor, he did not win. (Denzel Washington won for Training Day.) Jennifer Connelly also does a fantastic job as his wife, Alicia. It is through her eyes that we see the depth of Nash's illness, and it is through her eyes that we see him struggling to recover. She literally holds the last half of the film together because she holds him together. Connelly won Best Supporting Actress for her role.

So other than having a major problem with the story as written and the film as made, this movie is fine! Ron Howard won Best Director and Akiva Goldsman won Best Screenplay, what do I know? My advice is this: pretend that it is not about real people; change the character's names in your head, and you will enjoy the film.

A Beautiful Mind
*Academy Award Best Picture of 2001*
Produced by Brian Grazer & Ron Howard
Directed by Ron Howard
Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman
Based on the book by Sylvia Nasar

Note at the end of this trailer it says, "inspired by the life of John Nash."

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Gosford Park
In The Bedroom
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Moulin Rouge
This is another year where I did not see most of the nominees. I saw Gosford Park, but I was not impressed with it. The screenwriter of this was Julian Fellowes, who is responsible for Downton Abbey. I tried to watch In The Bedroom, but after half an hour I was not interested and gave up, even though the three stars were all nominated for their roles (but did not win). I did see The Lord of the Rings, but I am not a big Tolkien fan. I was angry when it suddenly just stopped, for example. And Moulin Rouge is a love story musical mixing new songs into a 1900 Parisian setting. No thanks.

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