A Beautiful Mind, by Albert W. Vogt III

Sometimes I look back on my college career, getting ever distant in the past, and think about how it was quite the ride.  I entered my studies as a brash seventeen-year-old who thought he knew everything.  My first couple of years were a humbling experience.  I failed two classes, one of which was English Composition.  At some point during my undergraduate career, I saw A Beautiful Mind (2001).  In it, John Nash (Russell Crowe) goes into his graduate school years at Princeton University thinking he is above his mundane studies.  His attitude almost sinks his career before it begins.  While at the time I could not see the parallels there, and I would stop well short of comparing myself to the Nobel Prize Winner for Economics (we do not even belong in the same sentence), I came away from the film obsessed with the notion of an original idea.  This is also when I was taking my first class with a professor who would go on to become one of my enduring mentors.  After seeing the movie, I went to his obvious and began gushing with youthful enthusiasm about my desire for an original idea.  He smiled in his indulgent way and reminded me how he wished such a thing were possible.  Re-watching the movie today, I now see the wisdom of his statement, though probably in a different light than he intended.

John Nash is part of a small cadre of brilliant mathematicians who start at Princeton University in the Fall of 1947, and their orientation begins A Beautiful Mind.  The others get along, but Nash’s awkward directness is off-putting to the rest.  The only one who seems to have any patience for him is his roommate Charles Herman (Paul Bettany).  Instead of socializing with his fellow mathematicians, Nash busies himself with trying to find his original idea, what he calls “governing dynamics.”  His obsession means his has no time for class or publishing of findings, which puts in danger his dream of obtaining a position at the Department of Defense’s Wheeler Labs on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  However, one day while minding his papers as usual at the local watering hole, his compatriots accost him once more when a pretty young lady walks in with a group of friends.  They all notice and want her, but their quoting Adam Smith’s theories on competition (as you do) lead Nash to the breakthrough for which he had been looking. His work earns him his dream job, and with it comes summons to the Pentagon in order to help the Department of Defense break Russian codes.  His work also brings the attention of a mysterious figure named William Parcher (Ed Harris), who recruits Nash to do further code breaking work.  Parcher has the black-suited appearance of a spy, and his orders to Nash make him increasingly paranoid.  For a time, he is able to carry on a normal life, and ends up marrying a student in one of his classes at MIT, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly).  Unfortunately, his behavior becomes more erratic and he begins to see spies everywhere.  Alicia becomes worried for her husband’s health, and calls for the help of Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer).  Together, they have Nash committed to a psychiatric facility, and Alicia learns the truth before Nash is able to accept it: that Parcher, and indeed Charles or his niece Marcee (Vivien Cardone), are not real, delusions conjured by Nash’s schizophrenic mind.  Up to this point, Nash believes that he is being held against his will by the Russians.  However, Alicia is able to show him the unopened, top-secret files he had supposedly been sending to Parcher. It is a turning point for Nash, and he agrees to treatment.  Since this is the early 1950s, the therapy is basically torture, and when he gets out he has trouble concentrating.  Because he wants to continue working, he stops taking his medication.  This leads to a relapse in his schizophrenia.  When Nash gives in to his delusions again, Parcher and Charles reappear, and he begins breaking imagined codes once more.  One afternoon, he offers to give a bath for their soon while Alicia collects laundry.  Once outside, she discovers the crazy scrawlings of Nash, indicating something is amiss.  Running back inside, she finds their baby almost drowning, and Nash claiming that Charles is watching him.  What helps him this time is his realization that Marcee does not age.  Neither she or Parcher and Charles can be real because over the years he has known her she has not grown older.  As part of his new recovery, Nash approaches his old rival at Princeton, Martin Hansen (Josh Lucas), for a job.  Despite a rocky beginning, Nash settles into an academic life and even begins teaching once more.  All this culminates in the recognition of his original idea for the Nobel Prize in Economics, which is where the film ends.

As strange as it might sound, I feel there are some great lessons to be taken from A Beautiful Mind in the character of John Nash for being a better Catholic and Christian.  When Nash is approached about the idea of him being awarded the Nobel Prize, one of the things they wonder about is his current mental state.  He admits to seeing things that are not there in reality.  As he explains further, though, he has a “diet of the mind” and he chooses not to indulge them, “them” being the delusions with which he became familiar in his younger years.  To me, this speaks volumes to being a practicing Christian and living in our modern society.  There are is so much that we are bombarded with on a daily basis that is sometimes purposely designed to draw us away from God.  The Saints and other theologians would echo Nash’s sentiments in navigating it all.  Particularly if there are things on which we are weak, and this is true for all of us, we cannot allow ourselves to indulge in them or they will lead us into a place we do not want to be.  For Nash, this is the inside of the psychiatric ward.  I also appreciate immensely his sentiments on receiving the prestigious Nobel Prize.  He talks about how his pursuit of mathematics has taken him to the edge of reality.  He follows this up, though, by saying that it is only in the equations of love that any logic and reason can be found.  This is a great way of looking at how God loves us.  He loves us even when we do not love ourselves, which is perhaps the most illogical sentiment of all.  And when we love others, as Nash so clearly did his wife for all the sacrifices she made, we are taking part in the immense love He has for all of us.

A Beautiful Mind is worth seeing, if for no other reason, than it is an Academy Award winning picture.  I mean, it literally won the Oscar for Best Picture, along with Jennifer Connelly for Best Supporting Actress and Ron Howard for Best Director.  You will feel the pain and struggle of dealing with mental health issues, as well as the triumph of overcoming them.  I really have no qualms about recommending it to almost any audience, though there is some forward talk about sex.  Hence, maybe be a little careful with younger audiences.


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