Nash _ what happened to the warts?
IF A Beautiful Mind had been one more sentimental Hollywood weepie, we could have dismissed it for the way it fictionalises Nash's life. But it is a shrewdly (though not intelligently) crafted, uncommonly restrained Hollywood drama that moves you. Or should I say - manipulates you? More than detailing the facts of Nash's life, the film has Nash's life follow the dictates of a Hollywood script. Fair enough - it is a Hollywood movie, after all. Except - the bits about his life that they changed or left out of the film make for a far more interesting movie script. ``A Beautiful Mind" turns out to be a not so smart film about a very smart man.
As we now meet him in the film, Nash seems to vaguely resemble Russell Crowe the star more than a tortured genius. (Crowe's performance is one notch better than Dustin Hoffman's hamming in ``Rain Man" and several notches below Geoffrey Rush's in ``Shine"). What we are not told or shown in the film (but learn from Sylvia Nasar's biography) is ``that he was institutionalised for paranoid schizophrenia not once (as shown in the film) but several times. That he disliked reading because he thought it stifled creativity. That he was snobbish, bisexual, racist and had a history of violence. That he had a secret mistress and an illegitimate son he had neglected. That he had a deep ambivalence towards the wife who adored him. And that though his wife, Alicia, is shown staying faithfully by his side in the film, what we aren't told is that (though she did shelter him and though they are still together) she divorced him in 1963. That his son, also a gifted mathematician, was also a schizophrenic. That he wanted to once renounce U.S. citizenship and was convinced he was a secret religious figure chosen to be the Prince of Peace.'' Presumably, scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard feared that we wouldn't like Nash very much if we knew all this. But surely it would not have taken anything away from his genius or his suffering to have him presented in all his contradictions? Instead, it would have made him much more real to us; given us an insight into the complex, fascinating character he is. Perhaps the most unpardonable (and unfortunate) bit of hokum in the film is the part about Nash working undercover as a code breaker for the government...er... sorry, make that Ed Harris. Unpardonable because it is not the hallucination he had and unfortunate because it is shown as happening in real life. Halfway through the film the audience find out that it's all happening only in Nash's mind. A cheap, if neat, cinematic trick and one that Nash's suffering surely didn't warrant. What was Nash's actual hallucination and why did they change it? Nash's hallucination took the form of believing that extraterrestrials were sending him messages; that he was being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world. They changed it, of course, so the trick would work - if it was aliens that he was working for, we'd spot it for a hallucination in a minute.
What the film-makers miss out in changing the nature of his hallucination is how fascinating a story it would have made to learn that John Forbes Nash, Jr - called ``the most remarkable mathematician of the second half of the century, inventor of a theory of rational behaviour, Nobel laureate who worked on games of strategy, economic rivalry, computer architecture, the shape of the universe, the geometry of imaginary spaces, the mystery of prime numbers'' - actually derived his inspiration from hallucinating that he was in contact with extraterrestrials.
Sylvia Nasar recounts that when Nash was asked how a rationalist like him, devoted to reason and logical proof, could actually think he could have been communing with extraterrestrials through the New York Times, Nash answered: ``Because, the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.'' If this angle - of how scientists and mathematicians hook into intuition, fantasy, imagination and the mysterious workings of the mind - had been explored it would have made for a fascinating, even unique Hollywood movie.
In Nash's case it would have also shown that the roots of his genius lay in his ``illness", in his schizoid personality. What we get instead is a representation of schizophrenia as a source for hallucinations with Hollywood plotlines - secret agents, car chases, shoot-outs - not the protean, elusive, labyrinthine, mysterious illness it is. (To the film's credit it slightly suggests how intrinsic schizophrenia was to Nash's genius in the gentle but conflicted relationship he has with his imaginary English room-mate and his niece).
And for a movie about mathematics there's precious little mathematics in the film. After all in ``Shine," a film about a piano prodigy who has a breakdown, music, like mathematics here, was central to the film - and we see David Helffgott play plenty of great music, specially the awesome Rach 3. What we get here is a blackboard intricately scribbled with equations.
The process, the excitement of discovery, is never made known to us. If only the film-makers had set out to tell the story that Sylvia Nasar does in her book - ``a story about the mystery of the human mind, in three acts: genius, madness, reawakening.''- it would have been a film that mattered. The film we see now seems more geared to turning Nash's life into Oscar gold.
(In this fortnightly column, the author, a freelancer based in Bangalore, will share his views on cinema.)
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