“Man is capable of as much atrocity as he has imagination.”
A Beautiful Mind is the perfect example of a film that you buy because it’s really rather excellent, but it then sits on your shelves unwatched. Viewing it for a second time is also a completely different experience from the first; it is not spoiled, merely altered. It is difficult, on repeated viewings, to not be dragged out of the narrative – particularly in the first hour, filmmaking techniques become the focus of attention, more than the characters’ actions. However, through this, the subtlety of Ron Howard’s direction becomes more obvious and, thankfully, the film does not rely entirely on some clever parlour tricks.
Russell Crowe is excellent as John Nash, a brilliant but socially awkward mathematician whose work at Princeton brings him to the attention of the government, who covertly hire him to crack codes sent by the Russians. It is the 1950s, and the Cold War was in full swing; it was not unheard of for civilians to be employed for their individual talents. Yet for Nash, events take a turn for the worse as he becomes further embroiled in his double life, trying to juggle his teaching, spying, and his family, all the while becoming more paranoid and isolated.
Based on a true story – John Nash is still alive today – the “twist” may not be such a revelation to people familiar with the mathematician. His situation is handled with serious earnest throughout: A Beautiful Mind is clear Oscar bait, so much so that to praise it now almost seems a cliché. As films go, it is not particularly spectacular either visually or technically, though a polished professionalism permeates every scene. Each moment feels deliberate and considered, carefully orchestrated and prepared. It may not be ground-breaking filmmaking, but it is undoubtedly very well executed.
Although nominated for an Academy Award, Crowe lost out to Denzel Washington (Training Day, 2001). Crowe’s performance is very much an actor’s performance: although understated and dedicated, it is difficult to not see Crowe as John Nash. The character is perfectly represented, but it never becomes more than a representation. In contrast, Jennifer Connelly, who won Best Supporting Actress, is utterly believable as Nash’s wife, struggling with a baby and an unexpectedly life-changing situation. The acting throughout is excellent; Paul Bettany adds much needed energy to his role as Charles, Nash’s Princeton roommate and best friend, while Ed Harris and Christopher Plummer bring further respectability to the film, playing smaller, but no less important roles.
There are some flaws – the most interesting moments in the film are those showing the strain placed on Nash’s marriage, and his relationship with his wife in contrast to, for example, Charles. Yet in the latter portion events become more rushed, and Connelly disappears from screen, popping up again in the final moments with so much ageing make-up that it renders her unrecognisable. Similarly, his son features for mere minutes on screen, growing from an infant to a young adult without any sense of upbringing. Yet these problems serve to remind us that, predominantly, this is a film about Nash, whose life is, really, filled with too much for a two hour biopic.
It is little wonder that A Beautiful Mind won Best Film in 2002: mere months after the events of September 11, the 2002 Oscars were a muted affair. Here, Howard gave the Academy – and cinema audiences – a film about redemption, about a man dealing with his demons, who emerges triumphant; uplifting and inspirational, which was exactly what was needed at the time. And, much like 2011’s Best Film, The King’s Speech, this film is an actor’s film, one that eschews trickery or experimentation to focus specifically on the story and the performances. In this respect, it achieves its goals perfectly.