A BEAUTIFUL MIND
Best Thriller, 2001 - 5 Stars
Power of the Human Mind; Crackerjack Thriller and Love Story
In Sylvia Nasar's award-winning biography, A Beautiful Mind, which chronicles the life of mathematics genius and Nobel laureate John Nash, she divides his life into three acts (though the table of contents does not): genius, madness and reawakening. Act one, his genius phase, covers the first two parts of the book, and lasts for the first 29 years of his life. Act two - madness, which takes the form of schizophrenia - covers the next two parts, and lasts until he is 62. Act three, his awakening, covers his remission from schizophrenia, his receiving the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994, and his life at Princeton up to the present. The book was made into an Oscar-winning motion picture by director Ron Howard in 2001 and stars Russell Crowe. Both book and film are phenomenal, as are the man's life and Crowe's portrayal of it.
Particularly interesting about act one of Nash's life, and part one of Nasar's book, is the discussion on game theory. Game theory, up until the time of Nash, was based upon the idea that only one player in a game can win and everyone else must lose. But Nash broke with tradition in his doctoral thesis by theorizing mathematically the results of a game in which everyone won, regardless of the number of players. His thesis became the basis of modern economic theory, and the reason for his eventual Nobel prize.
Nasar does an exceptional job explaining game theory and the workings of the mind of a genius, and especially Nash's original idea, which he called "the Nash equilibrium," and introduced in 1950 when he was only 21. Nash theorized that a game could be both competitive and cooperative - as opposed to the "winner take all" stakes of purely competitive games like chess - and could result in a desirable balance of power, rather than the undesirable condition of domination by a single power. In other words, when a player considers both his own good and the collective good of the other players, the results are better for everyone. This allowed gaming theory to be applicable to economics, politics and other sciences.
In Ron Howard's film, he illustrates this beautifully with the scene in the bar in which all the boys want the beautiful blonde who walks in. Russell Crowe's character, Nash, explains to his friends that if they all go for the blonde, they will all lose, because they will offend the blonde's friends, causing them all to strike out. But if each of them goes for a different girl, they will all score. This is the moment Nash realizes he has found the original idea for his doctoral thesis.
Socially, Nash had no friends growing up. This is ironic for a person whose greatest contribution to science was a theory of relationships. It is also interesting in that it illustrates something about the environment needed to develop into both a genius and a schizophrenic: isolation. As Nasar puts it, "His overriding interest was in patterns, not people." I don't think a lack of interest in people is required for genius, but I do believe an interest in patterns is. It was his ability to see patterns in numbers that led Nash into numerology and decoding imagined ciphers for the Pentagon.
Howard does an excellent job showing Nash's ability to recognize pattern in the opening scene when Russell Crowe insults a fellow student's tie after recognizing several patterns in it that are reflected in the layout of the punch table. He does it again when he is able to pick out the pattern of an umbrella in the stars for his love interest and future wife, Alicia, played by Jennifer Connelly. And when he is decoding for agent Parcher, played by Ed Harris, the patterns that he sees in the numbers and words "light up."
Until he meets Alicia, who would stand by him through his illness and help him overcome it, Nash's relationships are cloaked in mystery and innuendoes. It is not important to get into them here; but let me just say that the homosexual community was vocally disappointed by Howard's choice to leave them out of his film. I believe he was right to do so, if for no other reason than that they would have added nothing to the story; but more because no one is certain of what those relationships consisted. Nash himself did not consider himself a homosexual, so it may be that they were merely codependent. Regardless, they would undoubtedly have been immature and ego-centric, as all his personal relationship were before he met Alicia.
Alicia brought something to Nash's life that he had never experienced before: another focus besides himself and mathematics. Before her, his world revolved around the fact that he considered himself a mathematical genius. Now there was someone else to consider. Alicia drove a wedge into an otherwise self-focused, isolated life. She was the person that would recognize his slipping into schizophrenia - although she didn't know what it was at the time - and she was the one that would bring him back. Connelly is wonderful in the role of Alicia. Howard uses their relationship in the film to turn an otherwise straight thriller into a love story. It is this combination that makes A Beautiful Mind very much like a Hitchcock film; and yet, because it is true, it is even more interesting.
Ron Howard is masterful at blurring the line between what is real and what is not in Nash's world. We are never really sure until the day of the storm, when Alicia goes out to get the laundry off the line and discovers what is in the garage. That is an exciting scene, especially when combined with the scene of the baby's bath, and then with the scene following in which Parcher (Harris) holds a gun on Alicia and tells Nash that she is threatening the mission. The conclusion that Nash voices, as he tries to prevent Alicia from leaving, breaks the tension: "She never grows old" (talking about Charles' niece Marcee). That is when he shows he realizes that something is wrong in his world.
How he deals with his problem is what makes his "a beautiful mind." Once he is diagnosed with schizophrenia, he is given the usual drug and shock treatments. But he realizes that the treatments being administered to save his mind are also destroying it. With Alicia's consent and help, he tries to overcome his problem using the powers of his own mind. It is because of her love and support, and the support of the mathematics community, that he succeeds.
There is a key scene in the movie - the scene when he receives the recognition of his colleagues in the faculty dining room in the "pen ceremony" - when Thomas King tells him about his being considered for the Nobel Prize. Nash explains to King how he overcame his schizophrenia. He says it is like having an appetite for something but, rather than feeding it, choosing to starve it. He said he had an appetite for certain things in his life that weren't real. They are still there - talking about Charles, Marcee and Parcher - but he doesn't acknowledge them. Thus, they no longer have the power to affect his life.
To me, this is the take-away from both Nasar's book and Howard's film. We all have appetites for things that are not healthy, not real - fantasies in which we play "what if" scenarios in our heads. Like Nash, we can choose to ignore them and go on to lead happy, healthy, productive lives. Or, as he did during his mad period, we can indulge and become involved with them, allowing them to affect and ultimately destroying us. Like Nash, we have power over our own thoughts, and, thereby, over our own lives. If we choose well, we, too, will have beautiful minds and beautiful lives. It's up to us.
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