Biopics, in general, are dangerous territory for all but the most accomplished filmmakers. And as a rule of thumb, the less we know about the subject, the better the film has a chance of being.
With A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard has proven himself to be a remarkably gifted filmmaker and with his choice of subject, has allowed audiences to be swept up with the story of a life which is not only compelling but uncommonly moving.
The story of John Forbes Nash Jr. is one of brilliant potential, exceptional challenges, and triumphant success against all odds. Simply put, it is a narrative aching to be told on the silver screen. But we can be thankful however that Howard and writer, Akiva Goldsman, have not only seen the extraordinary in the life of a Nobel prize winning mathematian, but have resisted at each and every turn to delve into the saccharine or schmaltz.
The film opens as the young Nash arrives at Princeton in the early 1950s. Russell Crowe inhabits Nash's skin with understated composure. It is an Oscar caliber performance which the Academy would be proud years from now to have bestowed on the talented Aussie. At Princeton, Nash is so wrapped up in his thoughts that the common socializing of freshman at college seems sophomoric and he remains uninterested in either making friends or even attending classes. His goal, you see, is to tap his mind for the one truly original insight. In a stroke of visual bravado, Director Howard has Nash exercise his mental muscle by drawing equations on the dorm and library windows with white markers. Crowe's wincing visage seen through the number riddled panes of glass is nothing short of brilliant because Howard is slowly but very effectively transporting the audience into this beautiful mind. All successful filmic experiences are based in empathy and before you know it, the audience finds themselves in the midst of a complexity and poignancy that will seldom be rivaled.
Nash succeeds at his original quest and gets an assignment in a post WW2 world starting to brim with the heated doubt and paranoia of the Cold War. Along the way, he meets a young student who will, after a most unconventional courtship, become the future Mrs. John Nash. As played by Jennifer Connelly, Alicia Larde is the only woman who is neither insulted nor flummoxed by Nash's rather anti-social ways. On their first date at a rather swellegant party, Nash shows Alicia his ability to see the world differently by tracing objects in the night sky like a giant connect-the-dots puzzle. This and other romantic moments ring true and further cement the empathy Howard and Goldsman seek.
The exceptional challenge that faced Nash was one of mental disequilibria. Christopher Plummer portrays Dr. Rosen who diagnoses Nash with schizophrenia, and one might think that the ensuing travails that beset Nash and his wife might be of the predictable or melodramatic; but again Howard has a most deft hand. Empathy never wavers nor does pathos ever enter into the picture.
The film is littered with a fine ensemble cast of supporting characters, which helps the momentum of a thoughtful film. Ed Harris is at his menacing best as a governmental code cracking agent; Adam Goldberg and Paul Bettany shine as Nash's gregarious classmates who rib as well as support their studious peer; and Judd Hirsch exercises a professorial flair as Nash's academic mentor. James Horner supplies an emotional and lyrical score which cues the tension and the tear ducts with equal grace.
The most enjoyable aspect of the film is two-fold: first, having seen sweeping preview trailers of A Beautiful Mind does in no way forecast the emotional and narrative depth the film has to offer. It is a rare instance, indeed, for a trailer not to strip the pleasure of an accomplished film. The second and most welcome facet of this film is that it improves with retrospect. The current Hollywood assembly line output is littered with filmic equivalents of popcorn or Chinese food: Tasty but your cultural hunger returns within half an hour of consumption. A Beautiful Mind satisfies in the short term, but keeps satisfying upon recollection and improves in the cavernous halls of memory.