I love going to the movies, even though it is no easy matter these days to find at the local multiplex thoughtful compositions that engage the Christian mind. I am not even asking for a screenplay free of gratuitous gore and silly, vulgar language. I am just seeking a film that actually presents its audience with one or two challenging ideas.

Not long ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find such a film in director Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, which was inspired by Sylvia Nasar's award-winning biography of the mathematician John Nash. Although by no means an explicitly Christian story—or even, in conventional terms, a religious one—the film's narrative provides a vehicle for elucidating important Christian principles.

John Nash, as millions of people now know, was a brilliant graduate student at Princeton back in the 1940s, when, among other accomplishments, he invented an analytical tool now known as the "Nash equilibrium." This discovery, for which Nash received the Nobel Prize in 1994, turned out to be one of the foundations of modern game theory, with application to everything from arms control talks to pricing goods in a competitive market.

It is also consonant with profoundly Christian ideals.

Here's why: the Nash equilibrium posits that there are circumstances in which we are better off if we settle for something other than that which we most desire. This may be counterintuitive, but the mathematical proof (which is available for a general audience in William Poundstone's excellent book, Prisoner's Dilemma) is quite elegant. Indeed, the implication of the Nash equilibrium is that sometimes the entire community is better off when we choose not to pursue that which we want most desperately.

Isn't there a Christian parallel here? So much of Christ's teaching is about self-control, and so much of the Christian life (exemplified, say, by Paul's letter to the Romans) is recognizing how we serve God's ends by pursuing his purposes rather than our own fervent passions.

What gives both film and book their poignancy is that Nash, having made his great discovery and climbed to the top of his profession, slipped slowly into paranoid schizophrenia. Sylvia Nasar gives his descent impact by the cool, almost clinical detachment with which she describes it; Ron Howard takes the opposite route, inviting us into Nash's madness until we, too, find ourselves unable to distinguish delusion from reality.

The Christian conversation that the film should spark involves Nash's escape from the clutches of his mental illness. No, there is no conversion, no turning to the Lord when all else has failed. But, in describing his battle with the hallucinations that plague him, Nash explains in the film that he had to put his mind "on a diet." What this evidently means is that he has to force his mind to reject certain tempting ideas in the same way that dieters must force their bodies to reject certain tempting foods. Isn't this precisely what Christians are called to do?

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A Beautiful Mind has been criticized by some for the liberties it takes in telling Nash's story. To be sure, the real-life Nash was, during the years covered by the film, an atheist of sorts who, according to Nasar's biography, refused a Catholic wedding. I say "of sorts" because among the many delusions left out of the screenplay was his occasional belief that God was telling him what to do. At one point he thought of himself as "the Left Foot of God," and he often imagined himself a prophet.

In fact, Nash must have known his Bible quite well, because he found constant parallels between his own situation and the biblical narrative. For example, Nasar tells us that Nash saw his own perceived ostracism as a working out of the story of Jacob and Esau. He drew analogies between his own situation and the final Day of Judgment. He traced biblical analogies in the stars. And he sometimes imagined himself in heaven, although in Nash's schizophrenic vision it was a rotting, polluted place.

Yet the Christian implication of Nash's story does not turn in any way on the man's own religiosity, whether in his years of illness or in his years of remission. The implication comes in our recognition that we, too, must keep our minds on their proper diets, refusing the enticements of thoughts and ideas that might lead us away from the path of righteousness (see Phil. 4:8, for example).

Part of the diet of the Christian mind is to avoid an intake of garbage and filth, lest we spew out the same. With A Beautiful Mind, Hollywood, for once, is helping rather than hurting that effort.

April 1, 2002,Vol. 46,No. 4,Page 64

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 12/27/01

A Beautiful Mind is the latest drama from director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas). It is based on the life of John Nash, a brilliant mathematician whose groundbreaking work was hindered by a mental disorder that led to confusion and paranoia.

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J. Robert Parks praises the film's star, last year's Oscar-winner Russell Crowe: "Crowe conveys every facet of John Nash's personality with clarity and feeling. It's an intense and personal portrayal. Matching Crowe scene for scene is Jennifer Connelly … her steely-eyed performance and classic-Hollywood good looks are a strong addition." He notes that the film has "a well-told story and two strong performances. The ending is unfortunately far too Hollywood (a nauseating speech about love is followed by a standing ovation—yuck!), but I was happy to blame that, like John Nash might have, on faceless operatives."

But for Michael Elliott, the protagonist made the film a hard sell: "Director Howard never gets the pacing of the film beyond a slow trot. Nash may be a fascinating character and his story may indeed be interesting … but, as filmed, it simply isn't compelling enough to arrest our attention."

Mary Draughon (Preview) comments, "John's tormented delusions are disturbing, but the audience never loses sight of his gentle nature, dry wit and brilliant mind. This story of courage, love and strength, as Alicia helps John learn to distinguish reality from illusion, helps us all better understand mental illness."

Mainstream press critics offer widely differing opinions of the film and Crowe's performance. MaryAnn Johanson (The Flick Filosopher) writes, "My major quibble with Howard's direction is that the script gets us so inside Nash's head that it makes us a party to his illness and the paranoia that it spawns … but Howard doesn't know how to show us this without, ultimately, making us feel cheated and jerked around. Crowe does, finally, make A Beautiful Mind worth seeing. But maybe only for Crowe fans."

But Charles Taylor (Salon.com) disagrees, calling Crowe's performance "possibly the biggest load of hooey to stink up the screen this year. Beautiful Mind is a typical example of Hollywood's chickening out on chancy material, softening the edges of a story and characters, and shoehorning things into a tidy inspirational package. It's John Nash's life, being turned into an Oscar machine and an easy way to jerk tears."

from Film Forum, 01/24/02

This week's Golden Globe awards increased the chances that Ron Howard's film about John Forbes Nash Jr., A Beautiful Mind, will be this year's big winner at the Oscars. (Film Forum covered critical responses to the film a few weeks ago.)

While both the Golden Globes and the Oscars tend to reward crowd-pleasers over fine art, I feel compelled to voice a few reservations about this year's favored title. Sure, it tells an inspiring story. But is it, as it claims, based on a "true story"?

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Nash, a Nobel prize-winning genius whose theories have altered Wall Street and changed how we understand mathematics, has won international fame in spite of a severe struggle with schizophrenia that tested his relationships. Beautiful Mind captures the madness of schizophrenia vividly, painting Nash's life as a long, arduous, but ultimately triumphant battle against his mental affliction. The movie credits much of his recovery to the power of true love. We see Nash, awkward and reluctant in romance, finally gaining confidence as a lover and husband in the arms of Alicia, a persistent, attractive young student (Globe-winning Jennifer Connelly). Their marriage weathers the tempests of Nash's maddening spells, giving the film its predictably soaring conclusion. Audiences are deeply moved, and many tissues are deployed

True-story movies almost always alter the facts for the sake of condensing events to a coherent storyline. But A Beautiful Mind is so far from the truth that it seems a crime they didn't change the names. It may tell an inspiring, predictable story not unlike a TV movie of the week, but it certainly isn't Nash's story.

In the film, we see Nash as reluctant and awkward. Alicia is the one who finally gets through to him. But the film leaves out the widely-reported homosexual activity of Nash's college days. It avoids any mention of the fact that he got a woman pregnant, then abandoned her and the child he fathered. His eventual marriage is represented in the film as resilient and triumphant. Nash's real wife divorced him.

Wait, there's more. The hallucinations that Nash suffers in the film are pure Hollywood. We see Nash convinced that he's working with CIA operatives in an effort to save the U.S. from a nuclear threat. We are impressed at how Nash's affliction brings out his patriotism. The real Nash was more a skeptic than a patriot. And his real struggles with schizophrenia had him believing far more outrageous things: aliens had contacted him and told him he was to go to Europe and declare himself "the Prince of Peace." Wow. The John Nash of the film humbly accepts his Nobel Prize and gives an inspiring speech about how love has saved him from these exciting visions. But the real John Nash spoke about how he didn't think freedom from his madness was really such a good thing. He actually voiced regrets about getting better.

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John Nash's life would certainly make an interesting movie. Maybe someone will make that movie someday. It might not be such a crowd-pleaser. Nash would appear a far more complicated, reckless, and difficult person. He might not have appeared the patriotic, sanitized hero that makes audiences cheer and film industry workers vote for Ron Howard's movie.

But the thing that frustrated this moviegoer the most: Why aren't we shown anything about his "beautiful mind"? Can you imagine if the movie Ali had focused on Mohammed Ali's political controversies without showing any boxing? Or if Amadeus had shown us Mozart's poverty without playing any of his music? A Beautiful Mind is so concerned with showing us emotional breakdowns and teary-eyed epiphanies that it fails to explain what was so special about Nash's brain. We hear that his theories revolutionized the way people invest. How? What in the world did he discover or do? Ron Howard is content to show Nash staring at millions of digits looking for patterns, and that's it. Big deal. When Nash wins his prize, we don't know why he's won it.

Russell Crowe will almost undoubtedly win his second Oscar in a row for Beautiful Mind. And he is indeed amazing. But it seems the Oscars are becoming a contest of impersonating the mentally challenged. More and more of our best actors are taking on roles of mentally handicapped characters, as if trying to be the most convincing or extreme. (See the review of I Am Sam below.) Daniel Day Lewis won as a paraplegic in My Left Foot. Dustin Hoffman won for struggling with autism in Rain Man. Tom Hanks—simpleton Forrest Gump. Geoffrey Rush—Shine. (You could also describe Anthony Hopkins' Silence of the Lambs performance as a mentally challenged villain, I suppose.) Playing a physically and mentally challenged character now seems like a surefire way for a good actor to gain prestige and recognition. It gets our attention when familiar actors act in an unusual way. But that doesn't necessarily honor real people who struggle with similar challenges. And it doesn't necessarily bring to life a character. You'll probably be impressed by Crowe's abilities in this movie, the film's truly amazing feat, but you won't know John Nash. To play a handicapped person, you must adopt more than mannerisms. You must demonstrate the decisions they make, the talents they possess, and the weaknesses that ensnare them.


Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Divine Numbers

Can you say "Christian" and "mathematics" in the same sentence?

by Karl-Dieter Crisman
Christianity Today, Week of February 10

Related Elsewhere:

A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com.

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Directed By
Ron Howard
Run Time
2 hours 15 minutes
Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly
Theatre Release
January 04, 2002
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