Film Diary: A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2002)

Monday, 10 November 2008

A Beautiful Mind

A biography of a distinguished mathematician seems an unlikely source for an Oscar-winning blockbuster. But it’s precisely that aspect, coupled with real curiosity about the work as well as the life of John Forbes Nash, a brilliant but eccentric character (who is still alive so I’d better watch my step), that drew me to it. I never distinguished myself at maths but I penetrated the subject far enough beyond the tedium of the way it’s taught in schools to retain a fascination for it.

What we get is a film that dwells on eccentricity at the expense of mathematics. As a portrait of a man battling with some pretty fearsome devils – Asperger’s syndrome, one assumes, to start with and ultimately a nasty case of paranoid schizophrenia. The central enigma is the demarcation line between what is real and what is Nash’s delusions. By keeping it that simple, it works pretty well as a crowd-pleasing thriller. There’s always the old question to ask about “why now?” Why choose 2002 to make a film which centres on whether or not the threat of terrorist attack on US soil is real or fantasy. Can there be parallels with the real world being hinted at here?

All the same, I get a strange feeling with this film that I’ve seen it all before. These diaries are, for the most part, impressions and not studies. One of these days, though, I’d like to do a thorough analysis of the films of Modern Hollywood (say, post-Jaws), and see just how far each and every big Hollywood production follows the same schema; psychological buttons pushed, emotional strings pulled, all at carefully-planned strategic points. The result is a film that is seductively easy to watch, that draws you right into it, and leaves you afterwards feeling strangely, empty, like a Chinese meal.

What did I learn about John Forbes Nash? Nothing at all, very much, that I didn’t know already. That he was brilliant and arrogant; that like many with an autistic-spectrum condition he could be very charming; that he could make a right fool of himself in public places. Some things I knew about seem to have been carefully airbrushed out, not least his alcoholism and his bisexual promiscuity. Anybody hoping to learn about what Nash actually did would be disappointed. He is best-known for game theory, and this is barely hinted at – after losing a game of Go he complains that Go was a flawed game because he had played first and played a perfect strategic game so should have won (Nash later invented Hex as a game similar to Go that could always be won as suggested.) Any maths heavier than that is hinted as by the stereotypical blackboard scrawl of the geek. Yes, Nash isn’t to be seen as a beautiful mind at all, but as a one-man freak show. Well, what do you expect of somebody so sad as to be a mathematician?

All right. I enjoyed it, and I thought Russell Crowe pulled it off with surprising aplomb. But I didn’t wake up this morning still haunted by it, and I doubt if I’ll remember much about it in a couple of weeks time.

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