Film review of A Beautiful Mind

Ron Howard’s 2001 film A Beautiful Mind is a dramatization of the mental illness struggles of Nobel laureate mathematician John Nash (1928-2015). The film is important for having introduced to the public what schizophrenia actually is, and how someone with schizophrenia may perceive the world. Nash, played by Russell Crowe, is a brilliant mathemetician who believes he is working on a top secret mission for the government to crack Soviet codes. Along with this delusion, he hallucinates a government agent, Soviet spies, his college roommate and a young girl. As Nash’s delusions get worse, he is taken to a psychiatric hospital where a psychiatrist explains to him and his wife (played by Jennifer Connelly) that he has paranoid schizophrenia. After being treated with with Thorazine and horrific insulin shock treatment, he is discharged and given medication that he does not like due to its negative effects on his creativity. He stops taking the medication, which causes his delusions and hallucinations to reemerge. Things come to a head when a delusional Nash almost drowns his infant son in the bath and he accidentally hits his wife while fighting an imagined attacker. His wife places an emergency call to the psychiatrist, who convinces Nash to stay on his meds. The rest of the film involves Nash gradually accepting his condition and ignoring his hallucinations and delusions. The final scene is his winning a Nobel Prize in economics.

While this movie has been rightly hailed for introducing to the public what schizophrenia is and showing how a person with the disease might perceive the world, it is not without its critics. A 2002 review by ABC News states that some doctors are concerned that many schizophrenics seeing the film will go off their meds like Nash did, believing like him that they can beat the disease.1 The article also points out that visual hallucinations like what Nash had in the film are uncommon. Auditory hallucinations like hearing voices are much more common, and when people do have visual hallucinations, they are not life-like like in the film, but are “distorted or cartoonish.”2 The article does maintain that the film does a good service by increasing awareness of the disease and showing that there is no complete cure for it. The Guardian published an article, which took exception with the film leaving out the sordid details of Nash’s life, such as his illegitimate son, his abuse of his wife and their 1963 divorce (though they did remarry in 2001) as revealed in Sylvia Nasar’s biography.3 Jonathan Metzl, in his book Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became A Black Disease (2019), agrees that the movie does over-simplify John Nash’s life for the sake of Hollywood.4 Additionally he asserts that the film perpetuates an old stereotype that schizophrenia is a disease of white male geniuses, which overlooks the fact that since the 1960s, African American men have been disproportionally diagnosed as schizophrenic.5 Flaws notwithstanding, A Beautiful Mind is a beautiful film, which hopefully promotes better understanding of how terrible the disease is.

Trailer of A Beautiful Mind.(Movieclips Classic Trailers, A Beautiful Mind (2001) Official Trailer – Russell Crowe Movie HD, November 15, 2013, accessed November 8, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWwAOutgWBQ.
  1. ABC News, “How Realistic is A Beautiful Mind,” January 17, 2002, accessed November 8, 2021, paragraph 9, https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/DrJohnson/story?id=126426&page=1.
  2. ABC News, paragraph 18.
  3. Alex von Tunzelmann, “A Beautiful Mind Hides Ugly Truths,” The Guardian, December 19, 2012, accessed November 8, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2012/dec/19/a-beautiful-mind-john-nash.
  4. Jonathan M. Metzl, Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became A Black Disease, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009), 208.
  5. Metzl, 208.
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