A sultry Saturday night, not long ago: Tonight, I’m having one of my rare Saturday nights off from work. It’s hot, steamy, and miserable… much too hot to do anything except catch up on some movie-watching. Time for me once again to pull a DVD off the shelf!
Tonight’s fare is a film I hadn’t seen since way-y-y back in 2002, when it was first released on DVD: A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, and Paul Bettany, and directed by Ron Howard.
Somehow, over the past eight years, I had kinda forgotten about A Beautiful Mind. I don’t know why… when I first saw it in a movie theater eight years ago, I thought it was one of the best movies I had seen in quite some time. Now, as the second decade of the new century begins, my opinion of A Beautiful Mind is unchanged. It’s still one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.
To put it succinctly, A Beautiful Mind is a beautiful movie! Winner of four Academy Awards in 2001 (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay), it features a superb cast, a wonderful script, and outstanding production values.
A Beautiful Mind masterfully tells the story of John Forbes Nash, a brilliant mathematician whose work on game theory ultimately won for him the Nobel Prize in Economics, but whose “beautiful mind” – brilliant as it was – was tortured by one of the most debilitating forms of mental illness imaginable: paranoid schizophrenia.
Our story opens at Princeton University in 1948. John Forbes Nash is then a young doctoral candidate with a reputation for intellectual genius and unconventional behavior. He’s widely ridiculed for his lack of social skills. As a scholar, he eschews traditional forms of study in favor of looking for that “completely original idea.” It seems that, in short order, John Nash has proven himself a failure on both the social and academic fronts.
Almost by accident – at least as depicted in the film, anyway – Nash formulates a theory that will eventually become the basis of most economic decision-making during the last one-third of the twentieth century and the first decade of the new millennium: the Nash Equilibrium to Game Theory. His work is almost instantly recognized by his professors as ground-breaking; it will ultimately make him a Nobel Laureate.
After receiving his doctorate, Nash marries Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly), a fellow student who’s also a gifted mathematician. Nash is quickly hired by a corporation that is a major defense contractor. He maintains his ties to Princeton as an instructor, but he also begins working in the shadowy world of Cold War cryptography, the science of hiding information through the use of secure codes. He’s recruited into this work by a mysterious man named William Parcher (Ed Harris).
At about this time, Nash begins displaying erratic behavior that greatly concerns Alicia and those few of his colleagues who like and respect him. He ends up being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and undergoes months of severe and painful treatment for the disease.
The balance of A Beautiful Mind tells of Nash’s long road to recovery from his mental illness, aided by his always loyal but long-suffering wife and his friends, including “Charles” (Paul Bettany), his former college roommate. The film ends (this is not a spoiler, folks, just a well-known fact) with Nash receiving the long-overdue recognition for his seminal work on Game Theory: the 1994 Nobel Prize for Economics.
Everything about the movie is superb! Russell Crowe’s magnificent, Academy Award nominated performance as the tortured genius John Nash still ranks, in this reviewer’s mind, as the finest work he’s ever done in movies. His acting range is marvelous to behold. As he allows his character to evolve from a quiet, nervous, socially inept scholar, to an intense code-breaker, to a delusional mental patient, Crowe keeps viewers constantly on the edge of their seats with his completely believable interpretation of the mind of a schizophrenic.
Jennifer Connelly is excellent as Alicia Nash. Appearing next to Crowe surely must have been rather daunting for her. Refusing to allow herself to be overshadowed by Crowe’s fiery temperament and dominating performance, she not only held her own in her scenes with the man who has become one of Hollywood’s truly great actors; she illuminated her scenes with her own considerable talent. In Connelly’s capable hands, her character shows tenderness, compassion, and a strength of character that must have been the hallmark of the real person she so capably portrays.
Ed Harris brings his usual superlative skills as a character actor to the role of the shadowy William Parcher, the man who recruits Nash into the world of Cold War code-breaking. And Paul Bettany is superb as the man who begins a lifelong acquaintance with Nash as his college roommate, and remains Nash’s steadfast companion during his downward schizophrenic spiral.
As good as the acting is in A Beautiful Mind, perhaps the film’s most impressive feature is the uniquely original dramatic device that director Ron Howard uses to portray the phantasmic state of John Nash’s mind. I don’t want to offer too many details here, for to do so would be to provide a major “spoiler” for those who may not have seen the movie yet. Suffice it to say, the technique is surprising and very effective. Viewers may occasionally feel themselves a bit unsure of where the story is going (as I did), but rest assured… all will be made clear by the end of the film.
In one of the special featurettes that accompanies A Beautiful Mind on DVD, Ron Howard discusses the techniques he used in making the film. In this interview, Howard stated that he had decided, as much as possible, to shoot in chronological order… in other words, the earliest scenes were shot first, the latest scenes last. According to Howard, this is a technique hardly ever used by directors; he attributes much of the movie’s best qualities to shooting in sequential order.
I tend to agree with Howard’s assessment of his own work. Despite its relatively large cast, A Beautiful Mind has a decidedly ensemble-like feel to it. Everyone is so good in their part, and every scene flows so seamlessly from one into another, that it seemed to me like I was witnessing an unfolding, real-life drama. I seriously doubt that, had Howard decided to shoot A Beautiful Mind using more “traditional” movie-making techniques, he would have created a film as intensely dramatic, or as effective a vehicle for such a highly complex, intelligently told story.
MY VERDICT: It’s now been nearly ten years since A Beautiful Mind was first released to theaters, and eight years since it first appeared on DVD. This multiple Oscar-winning film has stood the test of time very well indeed! It remains one of the best films made during this young century, and is destined to become one of the great all-time classics in film history. An absolute “must own” for every movie collector’s DVD library!