"A Beautiful Mind" is both a biography and a film, currently in production, about the life of John Forbes Nash Jr. Mr. Nash won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1994, but the work he did to earn it was basically done in the 1950's. In the interim, this highly respected mathematical genius spent close to 30 years in the jaws of paranoid schizophrenia. After and during graduate school at Princeton and faculty work at MIT, Nash deveolped a working thesis on game theory, which ultimately led to the Nobel Prize. But when he was in his early 30's, he descended into mental illness from which he wouldn't ascend until the 1990's.

The biography was written by Sylvia Nasar and was published in 1999. The film, based on the biography, is currently filming and is due for release in December 2001. Russell Crowe plays the role of John Nash and it's directed by Ron Howard.

The problem with the book is that it's not written by a mathematics or psychological expert, but an economics reporter. Therefore, there are huge parts of the book that report, say, math culture of the late 40's and 50's, through a glass darkly, and equally large parts that try to explain schizophrenia (which, we're repeatedly told, is a brain disease, and nonononono, it's not because of bad upbringing, sexual confusion, or stress), and the treatments given for it, equally dimly (mostly, the old treatments --insulin shock, ECT -- were terrible, the new ones--mostly neuroleptics-- are great, even though his recovery seems to have occurred despite all of them). In reading it, I had to look up both my old copy of Introduction to Finite Mathematics and Martin Gardner to make any sense at all of what was being spoken of mathematically. True, he did win a Nobel Prize for economics, but economics was such a small part of what he did that it almost seems besides the point.

The problem of the movie, therefore is that it's doubly obscured: in order to shoehorn Nash's complex and multifaceted life into a standard Hollywood feel-good script, the fact that there was much that was ugly about his mind gets shoved under the carpet. For instance, the fact that he'd been a problem child (with a love of high explosives) even before college, never mind graduate school, enjoyed making bigoted remarks, and playing cruel and dangerous practical jokes...all of this gets smoothed out into a few catty comments on professional matters. His sex life is equally thorny: he's bisexual, and once enjoyed kissing other men in public for fun (which, in the 50's, in LA, was not only illegal but the reason for the arrest that ousted him from RAND), having sired a child out of wedlock, he abandoned both mother and child to poverty...hardly the activities of a fellow too socially inept to understand that women don't engage in "sexual intercourse" (which phrase Russell Crowe's bizarre accent turns into something far more alluring than clinical) without a bit of strategizing. (The implied subtext that college-age women of the early 50's would be engaging in casual sex is a ludicrous anachronism.)

Even less problematic details get short-shrifted: his wife, a gifted engineer before the greater influx of women into the field, is shown, tamely, painting living-room paintings of Paris for a living. His complex delusions all get condensed into a few overarcing fantasies -- the many and varied messages he left for Princetonians on hall blackboards aren't shown, nor his countless petitions for foreign citizenship to avoid any further involvement with the Department of Defense. We never once see the game (Hex), that was for many years his chief claim to fame, nor So Long, Sucker!, his commercially published game, which was for a time a modest commerical success. Even his love of dancing and bright colors (he once startled a secretary in Fine Hall by asking for "the sharpest scissors you have", only to use them to snip out a map from the phone book --for a scrapbook-- whose vibrant hues attracted him). All of this is lost. We see undergraduates mock him, but don't hear the classic rebuke "He's a better mathematician than you'll ever be."

To be quite fair, there are some details that are dead-on accurate: Dr. Nash does keep house for Alicia (again, before it was fashionable), he does enjoy wearing his orange Tigers cap in all weathers and with any outfit...and yes, childrens, they really do use those medieval-looking restraints, even today. (The Humane Restraints five-points made me smile in recollection...the closest I've ever come to classic sick humor.) But instead of a real groping after humanity, we get a standard Hollywood love story, with a little math and suspense in it, and a milkwater moral. He deserves better.

Warning: This writeup contains spoilers.

A Beautiful Mind is a biopic portraying the life and accomplishments of a mathematician named John Nash. It covers his life from his days at Princeton up to his receiving the Nobel Prize in 1994.

The film starts at Princeton in 1947 with John becoming a new student. The audience is introduced to John as a social introvert who has extreme difficulty communicating effectively with other people. Although witty and sometimes comical, he is like a fish out of water when dealing with his fellow students. To cope with his apparent lack of friendship, he creates an imaginary roommate that appears to be real to the audience until later in the film, when we find out that John is suffering from schizophrenia.

While working at The Wheeling Institute at MIT, John gets increasingly frustrated with the seemingly trivial nature of his government assignments. He feels that his true genius is being wasted on everyday tasks that don't have the impact he would like. Eventually, he is approached by a man named Parcher, who works for the Department of Defense. This man tells him that he is the greatest natural code breaker the world has ever seen, and that he is needed for a special classified assignment. His assignment is to monitor a list of periodicals and scan them for hidden messages to Russian spies. Alas, Parcher is just another creation of John's mind. This new imaginary assignment thrusts Nash into a state of complete paranoia as he is constantly afraid of being pursued by the Russians.

Eventually he is forced into treatment and is released under strict medication. However, living with the medication is no easy task. Finding that his mathematical ability and libido is hindered by the medication, he begins to hide his doses of pills to regain his genius. However, once he stops, he begins hallucinating again and his wife almost leaves.

Determined not to give in to the lunatic ravings inside his own mind, John forgoes more hospitilization and endures a heroic battle against his own visions. These visions continually haunt him, but eventually they become nothing more than scenery as he succeeds in phasing them out of his activities. The film concludes with John receiving his Nobel Prize and continuing to teach classes as a professor at Princeton University.

This film is significant for multiple reasons. Number one, it brings attention to a great man and his accomplishments. It also gives us a slight glimpse into the world of a schizophrenic. If you dig a little below the surface, you will find another moral. It seems that prescription drugs are being used increasingly for the treatment of mental illness. Although these drugs are obviously helpful for treating the symptoms, we must look deeper to the side effects that they produce. In Nash's case, he was transformed into a shell of his former self. He decided to take a very difficult road and solve this great problem with his own mind.

The fact that John Nash was able to conquer his problem should leave us with an optimistic outlook for our own problems. The fact that the human mind could overcome a disease as devastating as schizophrenia should make everyone realize that great deeds can be accomplished with great thoughts.

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