Why a Film About Math is Really a Lesson in Reading the World: An Analysis of A Beautiful Mind

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A Beautiful Mind is a film about learning to read social codes. It teaches viewers what ways of making sense of the world are acceptable, what ways are not and, in doing so, legitimates a particular worldview.  I argue that in its portrayal of the 1994 Nobel Prize winner John F. Nash, Jr., A Beautiful Mind is a film that naturalizes a world divided into haves and have-nots by teaching viewers how to find their "place" in existing social relations.[1]

A Beautiful Mind is, by most accounts, a very successful film. It was not only one of the past year's highest grossing films, but was also awarded "Best Picture" at both the Golden Globe Awards and the Academy Awards. Yet, at the most basic level, the film's plot is little more than variation on what has become a standard Hollywood cliché. It is the story of a self-made individual (Nash) who, through sheer will and determination, triumphs over adversity (schizophrenia) and, in the end, not only receives the accolades of his peers who had previously misunderstood him, but also is accepted, despite his "difference", as a member of the community.  It is a story, in other words, of individual adjustment to a society divided by class, ability, race, gender, health, . . . that restores the existing order and alleviates the necessity for critique and social change.

This is another way of saying that it is not the "newness" of Hollywood films that makes them popular or successful.  The fact that you could substitute any number of other films for A Beautiful Mind and ultimately arrive at the same ending (with, of course, some "differences" over the exact staging of events, characters, etc.) marks that what is at stake in determining the success of a film is not its "plot", but the deeper lesson about the world that it teaches viewers. It is the lesson behind the plot—the way in which a film assumes, and thus reproduces as "natural", the dominant view of the world—that is the reason why A Beautiful Mind has come to be widely regarded as a "good" film. The film's "familiarity"—its ability to reproduce the common ways of thinking about the world—is in short what makes it a "blockbuster".

For example, even though there has been much debate since the film's debut over the historical accuracy of its portrayal of Nash, A Beautiful Mind remains almost universally understood as a "good" film. Representative of the majority of the mainstream responses to the film, the New York Times for instance declares in its review that although the film is "almost entirely counterfeit…a piece of historical revisionism on the order of 'J.F.K.' or 'Forrest Gump'", it remains a film that still elicits "genuine emotions".[2]

This notion that the film can be "almost entirely counterfeit" and yet remain emotionally "genuine" is not a paradox, but rather points to the way in which the film fulfills certain familiar expectations, not only of what a "good" film is, but, at a deeper level, of what constitutes an "accurate" representation of the world. How a film is understood—whether "good" or "bad", "difficult" or "fun" and "entertaining"—is determined not simply by "accuracy" or stylistic originality, but by whether it reproduces or intervenes into the commonsense ways of thinking. A film that challenges the dominant ways of making sense of the world is often represented as a "bad" film or, worse, a piece of "propaganda".

Take, for instance, mainstream critic Roger Ebert's review of the re-release of I Am Cuba, a film that represents the difficulties that the majority of the world's population must face everyday to meet their basic needs not as an individual problem, but a social one.  Ebert writes, "The movie, now in limited distribution before a video release, is of course dated in its politics. Even its depravities and imperialist Yankee misbehavior seem quaint. But as an example of lyrical black and white filmmaking, it is still stunning. If you see it, try to figure out how the camera floated down that wall".[3] For Ebert the film's plot, which shows the life or death struggle of thousands of Cuban people to overthrow a system based upon inequality and oppression and to create a socially and economically just society, is nothing but propaganda and the film (barely) manages to survive on the thrill of its cinematic techniques. On the contrary, Ebert declares that A Beautiful Mind, a film full of both formal and thematic clichés, is a "4 star" movie which "nearly brought tears to my eyes".[4]

A Beautiful Mind has become such a celebrated film, in other words, because it is not groundbreaking. Its effectivity actually lies in its ability to assimilate a "different" set of particulars—a "new" main character and context (i.e., a schizophrenic, Nobel Prize-winning mathematician)—into a very familiar framework, which faithfully represents the world as viewed from the position of those in power. While it appeals to eccentricity and blurs the line between "sanity" and "insanity" as a means of producing a more inclusive sense of "community", it nonetheless remains fundamentally committed to the dictates of wage-labor: each individual is ultimately responsible for him or herself, that this responsibility is the basis of freedom, and that this "freedom"—to have nothing except your "self" on which to survive—is the best that anyone can hope for.

Throughout the film, Nash is presented both in his normal life as well as in his illness as an "eccentric": he refuses to follow standard social conventions when meeting other people, he works out mathematical formulas by writing them on the windows of his room, and he has an almost mystical ability to "see" the world as a series of interconnecting patterns.  He is, in other words, represented as someone who disrupts the expected and who does not seem to fit within the boundaries of the acceptable.  For example, in the beginning of the film, the viewer learns that as a student Nash never attends class and as a professor he arrives on the first day of the semester only to immediately throw the textbook in the trash.  When the school representatives question his practices, Nash defends himself by declaring, "classes will dull your mind, destroy the potential for authentic creativity".

It is this idea of "authentic creativity" that is at the core of the film. It says to viewers that the only true knowledges are personal, private and thoroughly "individual". Even "science"—traditionally the realm of "rationality," "universality" and "objectivity"—becomes a deeply private, virtually spiritual enterprise. In this sense, while the classroom is an uncomfortable social space dominated by politics, interrogation, and conflict, the "individual" (and his meditations on mathematical formulas) serves as a romantic place of retreat, repose and coherence.

It is not accidental, then, that the film represents the primary effect of Nash's illness as believing that he is the ultimate "code-breaker": the one who can find and de-code secret messages in all texts. The portrayal of Nash's schizophrenia as a moment of "confusion", in which neither he nor the viewer can tell what is "real" and all the codes break down, is exemplary of several recent films—including The Matrix and The Sixth Sense—in which the primary plot device is to provide an instance of "shock" in which the main character, and through them the viewer, learn (momentarily) that their entire world and all their beliefs are "false" only, in the end and after a long period of re-learning what is "true", to reproduce a world that is virtually identical to the original and thus beyond question. This is the role of Nash's speech at the culmination of the film, in which he declares that his quest for the "one original idea" has led him away from "reason" and "logic" and towards the conclusion that "it is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reason can be found".  The film's representation of Nash's progression from illness to health produces a viewer who, having seen the discomforting consequences of science as a mode of interrogation, finds it "enjoyable" to return to a mode of knowing that accepts the world as natural, inevitable and without question.

Like the creationist theory of "intelligent design" which argues that the universe is too complex to be understood in its totality (and thus must be the product of "god"), Nash's arguments, which introduce the indeterminate moment of the "sublime" into reason and rationality, have the effect of de-materializing science and are part of the larger attack by the ruling class on any knowledge which seeks to interrogate the root causes of social inequality. That is to say, the significance of the film's portrayal of Nash's science as a form of mysticism is that it takes part in the wider privatization of science, when there is an increasing gap between the relative few who are able to take advantage of possibilities made available by technological breakthroughs and the majority who are not. By rejecting a science based on rationality, experimentation, public debate and analysis that would strive to meet the needs of all people, A Beautiful Mind posits a "new" notion of science amenable to corporate interests. It teaches viewers that "science" cannot be used to understand the causes of social problems and how they can be changed. In fact, such science, it suggests, works to suppress the individual's "authentic creativity": a thinly veiled code word for the substitution of a science of individual meditation for a transformative science that works to advance the conditions of people's lives.

It is in the triumph of finding his "place", essentially a theory of accepting the world as it is, that the film's portrayal of Nash provides a comforting solution to the dramatic convulsions of contemporary social life, in which the monopolization of the world's resources has resulted in increasing uncertainty for the majority of the world's population as to how they will be able to meet their needs. The film's portrayal of Nash's schizophrenia and his recovery through "self-reliance" provides as a response to the increasing difficulties of life under capitalism the idea that the primary mode of dealing with social contradictions remains an individual one. It is such that the film legitimates as an inevitable part of being a member of the community not only the alienation that millions of people feel as a result of their only means of survival being in the hands of transnational corporations, but also the continued attack on all social programs that, in essence, leaves people "on their own". In what is a prime example of the way in which the brutal conditions of daily life under capitalism are legitimated by ruling class ideas, the privatization of social resources that, for example, leaves thousands of people in the United States without access to adequate health care becomes, in the film's narrative of Nash "willing" himself to health, an opportunity for individual "fulfillment" and personal "self-discovery".

It is this shifting of social contradictions into private tragedy that the story of Nash's struggle with schizophrenia and his return to "normalcy" operates as such an effective lesson in "coping" with the contradictions and uncertainties of capitalist society. It says, on the one hand, that survival is a matter of individual will and not determined by whether or not one has access to adequate health care, nutrition, education, housing and employment. On the other, the reminder that Nash is "unlike" anyone else—that he is a "genius"—says that those that do "succeed" are deserving of this because they are "naturally" better.  What is at stake in the film's elevation of the individual over the social and the personal over the political is the naturalizing of class division and a system based on the private ownership of social resources.

It is such that A Beautiful Mind is an effective pedagogical tool for the ruling class. At a moment when more and more people are not only questioning the practices of transnational capital and whether the "free market" can effectively meet their needs, but are also beginning to organize in opposition to the dictates of Big Business, it is not coincidental that A Beautiful Mind has come to be celebrated as a "good" film that represents "genuine emotions". It teaches viewers that the contradictions of society are not "outside"—that is, they are not determined by the way in which capitalism produces inequality—but rather are "inside" and that it is the task of everyone to find their own way of coping with social inequality. It is this lesson, of "going along to get along", that explains A Beautiful Mind's "success".

[1] Although I have not addressed in this paper the content of Nash's theories, it is not coincidental that Nash has become a celebrated figure. Without going into detail, his theory of "non-cooperative" games has become one of the primary means of legitimating the monopolization of social resources in the hands of the few. It provides a way of explaining the private concentration of social resources, and the way it will inevitably lead to social convulsions such as recessions and wars, not as a systemic effect of capitalism, but rather as a consequence of "bad players". His current revival as a "genius" after years of obscurity speaks more to the interests of transnational capitalism in presenting his theories as the natural way of conceptualizing the world than it does any inherent "greatness" or triumph over mental illness.

[2] Scott, A.O. "From Math to Madness, and Back". The New York Times. 21 December 2001.