Tribeca Film Festival: The Art, Science and Math of a Beautiful Mind
30 Apr 2011: New York
Last year’s Tribeca Talks film selection and discussion, ”Memento The Science of Memory” was an exciting choice partly because Christopher Nolan has gotten huge recognition for his work since his 2000 film (and Inception was looming on the horizon) but also because the I can recollect the memory of my first viewing of the film.
This year, for its tenth anniversary, the Tribeca Film Festival decided to take on, “The Art, Science and Math of A Beautiful Mind”, the 2001 Best Picture Oscar winner (also celebrating its tenth year) from Ron Howard. A brilliant film, A Beautiful Mind is a feature about Nobel Prize winning economist, John Nash, played by Russell Crowe. However, unlike last year, where I knew how I felt seeing Memento for the first time, this year, I could not remember my initially feelings for Mind (interestingly memory and perception are a factor in both). But I did get to experience much more of the depth and layers of the film.
After the film ended, when people had a chance to wipe away their tears and their tremendous applause quieted down, the panel discussants came out. The moderator Ira Flatow (NPR) gave his introduction, and then Sylvia Nasar (author of the book, A Beautiful Mind), Akiva Goldsman (Academy Award winning screenwriter), Ron Howard (Academy Award winning director), Brian Grazer (Academy Award winning producer), Brian Greene (Columbia University Professor of Physics and Mathematics) and Dave Bayer (Barnard College Professor of Mathematics and math consultant on the film) took their seats.
First, to break into the reality of the film, A Beautiful Mind should not be considered as a biopic because, as Goldman said, of compression of time and the use of actors, there is no such thing. As the feature film style strives to elicit emotion (and win awards), directors can take certain liberties in the story-telling. Two key scenes in the movie never actually occurred: the first, the iconic pen ceremony scene, where Nash is recognized by Princeton professors for his outstanding accomplishment and, second, Nash’s heartfelt speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony where Crowe so eloquently responds to his own question, “What truly is logic?”
So what does the initial viewing of A Beautiful Mind make one feel? I recommend you see it before reading on but, otherwise, just as Nolan blankets viewers in amnesia (his protagonist’s “condition”), Howard makes the audience unable to tell delusion from reality. He “pulls the rug out” from under the viewer when it is revealed that Nash is schizophrenic: having been apprehended by what he (and we, the audience) thought were Russians, Nash is instead confined to a psychiatric hospital. Here, the characters of Charles (Paul Bettany) and Parcher (Ed Harris) are revealed as mere figments of Nash’s imagination. We then get closer to his wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) and see her turmoil as she has to delve into her own heart to understand and grasp the impact this will have on their lives.
Though the bulk of the film is serious, it is punctuated with levity at times. Similarly, the panel was able to raise some laughs from the crowd. After Howard admitted he had not seen the movie since it came out, he said, “and I like it. I was moved by it.” After attending a math lecture to get some pointers for the film, Crowe and Howard left not understanding any of it, but instead having figured out how to grasp the chalk excitedly.
For a scene where Crowe erases a chalkboard full of equations, Bayer had spent six hours writing them up, so the filmmakers ensured Crowe “pulled his punch” and double checked that it was okay before wiping it away. Finally, when asked about the scene in the bar with the blonde where Nash begins to develop his equilibrium model, Goldman replied, “If I made math about sex, people would understand it.”
Mind extends over two hours, and has three segments or styles, nostalgia, noir and the “simple honest, unromanticized look at life”. At Crowe’s insistence, Howard approved of filming the movie chronologically so Crowe could grow into the character, despite any extra costs that came with it.
Despite what you might infer from the opening scene with the necktie and reflections, Mind is not a math film, which would be “impossible to pitch” today. In fact, as Flatow pointed out, they “could have left out the math” and still made an engaging film. The movie is about mental illness, “part of every family” as Howard said.
Near the end of the discussion, Nasar shared three comments Nash made after seeing the film; he had “liked the pace”, “thought it was funny” and “that Russell Crowe looked a little like me”. After seeing the film a second time, I know that at least the first two still hold true. But I look forward to seeing it again, when I might discover something new in the multi-layered movie. A Beautiful Mind remains every bit as poignant today. Even Ron Howard thinks so.