A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard’s film based on a biography of mathematician John Nash, is carried by a tour de force performance by Russell Crowe. Nash won the Nobel Prize in 1994 for his revolutionary development of game theory, a breakthrough which challenged a century and a half of economic theory and is of such fundamental importance that it has influenced government and military policy and other scientific disciplines far afield from economics and mathematics. Nash also is a schizophrenic whose career, after early success, was interrupted by a period in which he suffered severe paranoid delusions and was institutionalized.
With an intelligent script by Akiva Goldsman (The Client, Batman & Robin) A Beautiful Mind fictionalizes the biography for dramatic coherence. Told largely from Nash’s point of view, it deliberately induces some confusion between what is real and what is delusional, an effective method for conveying, at least at a simple level, the confused state of the disturbed mind.
The film chronicles Nash’s arrival at Princeton where mathematics students were indoctrinated in the importance of their work for national defense; it’s the post-World War II years when the cold war with the Soviets was heating up and competition for scientific superiority was an American preoccupation. Nash is also shown to be clever, with a sardonic wit that he lets fly rather unselectively. Whether this lack of self-censorship was attributable to his underlying illness or simply a case of social ineptitude is not established. But it does little to endear him with his colleagues and he often states that he "doesn’t like people much and they don’t like me."
Nash marries a bright student (Jennifer Connelly) and they have a child. But his disease progresses to the point where institutionalization is necessary. Brutal insulin shock treatments (now discredited as a treatment for schizophrenia) and drugs bring his behavior under control and allow him to return to his family, but his mind is dulled by the drugs–he can’t work, he can’t respond to his wife’s affections. How he finds his way back to a functional and productive life makes up the balance of the film.
Under-edited at over two hours, the center section of the film lags; Director Ron Howard (Cocoon, Apollo 13), like so many of his compatriots, seems unwilling to leave a single frame on the cutting-room floor. And, too, as is almost inevitable in a film of this type, A Beautiful Mind tips into sentimentality rather than sustaining a dryness that would have commanded more respect, and, one imagines, would have been more in keeping with John Nash’s outlook. The intrusive score by James Horner (Titanic, Enemy at the Gates) emphasizes, rather than alleviates, this weakness.
Still, there’s a good story told here and overall it is handled reasonably well. But it is hard to imagine it could have worked half as well without Crowe’s performance. Crowe (L.A. Confidential, The Insider) is nothing less than brilliant. He conveys a sense both of the remarkable intelligence and the profoundly disturbing paranoia which cohabit the mind of John Nash. His body language, as much as his delivery of the lines, defines and builds a characterization which centers the film and, indeed, enables it to transcend its weaknesses.