Based on a true story, the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind examines mental illness in a way previously unexplored. The main character, John Nash, a future Nobel Laureate in Economics, starts to develop paranoid schizophrenia. In 1947, Nash arrives at Princeton University. From the heights of notoriety to the depths of depravity, he experiences it all. A mathematical genius, he is under increasing pressure to publish but refuses until he arrives at a truly original idea. His inspiration finally comes when he and his fellow graduate students discuss how to approach a group of women at a bar. One of his fellows quotes Adam Smith and advocates “every man for himself”. This leads to a Nash’s new concept of governing dynamics in which he argues that a cooperative approach would lead to better chances of success. On the strength of this idea, he is offered an appointment at MIT.
Some years later, Nash is invited to the Pentagon to crack encrypted enemy telecommunication and is able to decipher the code mentally. He starts to consider his regular duties at MIT uninteresting and beneath his talents, so he is pleased to be given a new assignment by mysterious supervisor, William Parcher, to look for patterns in magazines and newspapers in order to thwart a Soviet plot. Nash becomes increasingly obsessive about searching for these hidden patterns and believes he is followed when he delivers his results to a secret mailbox.
It is only towards the end of the film that the audience discovers that Nash has schizophrenic and that certain characters in his life are only in his mind. His college roommate, his roommates daughter, and the mysterious William Parcher of the United States Department of Defense are all figments of his imagination. Along with these main characters, his job with the Pentagon is also imagined. After Nash’s discovery of his illness, he struggles to discern what is part of reality and what is part of his illness. Fear and the threat of the made-up soviet plot makes it even more difficult for Nash to accept reality over the imagined.
This film impacted society’s views on mental illness in both negative and positive ways. On one hand, A Beautiful Mind made schizophrenia less scary and more approachable. There were many superstitions and false assumptions surrounding schizophrenia and other mental illnesses at this time and this film, with its charming (though arrogant) main character and a pleasing love story, allowed mental illness to be talked about in a way that was not negative or riddled with fear.
On the other hand, this film glossed over many of the rough edges of the realities of having a mental illness. The film does not accurately portray John Nash’s relationship with his wife, which he domineered and cheated on several times. The film also ends on a happy note in which John comes to terms with his illness and completely triumphs over it using only mental power. This inaccurately represents any schizophrenic’s constant struggle with reality and makes it much more rosy and clean.