Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Akiva Goldsman
Adapted from: A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany, Ed Harris, Josh Lucas, Christopher Plummer
Nominations: Picture, Director – Ron Howard, Actor – Russell Crowe, Supporting Actress – Jennifer Connelly, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Score, Makeup
Wins: Picture, Director – Ron Howard, Supporting Actress – Jennifer Connelly, Adapted Screenplay
Ron Howard is a director who makes good films. However, I wouldn’t say he has a distinct style: his films are engaging and entertaining, but if I were to watch one of his movies not knowing he was the director, I probably wouldn’t know if he was the director anyhow. He doesn’t have the flair of Quentin Tarantino, the gravitas of Christopher Nolan, or the vision of David Lynch. If anything, Howard is a workhorse director who can be counted on to deliver a finished film of any genre on time and on budget. Again, that’s not to say he doesn’t make good, even great, films. Apollo 13 (1995), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), Cinderella Man (2005), Rush (2013), and In the Heart of the Sea (2015) are enjoyable and re-watchable movies that immerse us completely into their respective worlds: they’re stories for the masses that get us in the sweet spot without too much sentimentality. Of all the titles in his filmography, A Beautiful Mind is hands-down my favorite Ron Howard film. And it succeeds cinematically because of how straightforward and “everyman” his direction is.
Mental illness of any ilk is such an internal struggle that bringing a story focused on it can be difficult to tell visually. Case in point, John Nash’s delusions were strictly auditory; describing them in a book is easy enough, but in a movie, it could just be a muddle of voices and sounds. Critics of A Beautiful Mind took umbrage with how the film sanitized, omitted, and streamlined events in Nash’s life, but the source book itself was an unauthorized work, so expecting literal truth is shortsighted. The feeling of Nash’s life and illness, though, come through because of the dramatic license Akiva Goldsman with depicting Nash’s descent into paranoia and delusion. Just as Nash’s world comes crashing in on him at the film’s midpoint, our interpretation of everything beforehand is given an emotional gut punch. By maintaining Nash as our sole point-of-view character in the first half, we’re as invested in his well-being as he is. In this way, even though very different from how Nash actually experienced his delusions, we are given a fantastic representation of schizophrenia.
However one feels about the liberties taken in the film, it’s inarguable that Russell Crowe turns in one of the finest screen performances in film history. He brings such idiosyncratic nuances to his portrayal of Nash that the actor disappears and only John Nash remains. To be fair, this is a film filled with solid acting—and considering how much of a character study it ends up being, that’s incredibly important. Take Christopher Plummer as Dr. Rosen: he has, what, four scenes, and in three of those scenes he keeps us guessing as to what his true motives are. Something as subtle as an eye squint or whispered word has us on edge. Then again, we’re so far into Nash’s paranoia that anyone new who shows up is automatically suspected of ulterior motives. As an Oscars historian, I try not to have a “this movie/director/actor/actress should have won” mindset, but not hearing Russell Crowe’s name called out by Julia Roberts is one of my few egregious oversights done in the Academy’s ninety-three-year history.
Another “yeah, no…” loss might be James Horner’s unique and complex score falling short to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001). Yes, Howard Shore’s music is iconic and gave Middle Earth so much of its life and atmosphere, but Horner’s compositions are just as haunting as they are surprising and unnerving. Horner said he took inspiration from a kaleidoscope, and the patterned motifs and melodies definitely convey that concept. It’s a beautiful and clever score that elevates the drama, tension, and romance to powerful heights and new meanings as Nash progresses from boy genius to fallen madman.
A Beautiful Mind remains an elegant and honest film almost twenty-years after its initial release. Early in the film, Nash remarks to Charles that a teacher once told him that was given two helpings of brain and only half a helping of heart. While it’s true that we can’t change much about who we are coming into life, it’s possible to make changes as we live. Nash may have only had half a helping of heart at first, but as is often the case, he found ways to make the best of that helping. It’s a nice idea to keep in mind, whether we’re dealing with our own form(s) of mental illness, physical strife, or unrest in the world at large. We have to make the best with what we have, be it a beautiful mind or a beautiful heart.