'Beautiful Mind' controversy: Hollywood's truth problem

Posted: March 20, 2002

The current controversy over the movie A Beautiful Mind and its Oscar-worthiness seems to focus on the wrong issue - fairness to John Nash - and to miss the real question: Is this supposedly biographical movie dishonest in its rendering of history?

A recent article by the New York Times' Rick Lyman recounts the distress of the movie's supporters, who feel that "Nash is the victim of a whisper campaign whose aim is to scuttle the movie's Oscar hopes." Some of those whispers, moved primarily along Internet channels, involve what Nash's supporters argue persuasively are unfair charges of anti-Semitism and homosexuality.

Nash and his family are, understandably, as distressed as the movie's supporters. And Sylvia Nasar, the author of the book on which the movie is based, published a commentary piece in the Los Angeles Times accusing some journalists of "inventing" information about Nash that is damaging to him and his family.

This charge of "inventing" reality is the real issue. And, although some journalists and movie partisans may be guilty of it, the real culprit is the movie itself and its lack of fealty to the truth.

Nasar's book is both exemplary and accurate in telling the Nash story. He is a brilliant thinker and Nobel laureate who manages, through an extraordinary application of will and skill, to cope sufficiently with severe schizophrenia to get on with his life and his teaching. Although the movie, too, is very skillful as drama and filmmaking (and is carried by a powerful performance by Russell Crowe as Nash), it is not faithful to the book, nor is it faithful to the truth of Nash's life.

The filmmakers, according to Lyman's piece, admit they took liberties with Nash's biography, but they seem to think that's just fine because they did so with the approval of both the subject and the author of the book.

What this reveals is a lack of standards and ethics in the film industry that, if replicated in the fields of history or journalism, would have produced a scandal of the first order.

The makers of A Beautiful Mind omitted crucial details of Nash's life, and then delivered a maudlin ending that would have been seen in a totally different light had the omitted details been a part of the script.

But evidently, because it's "just a movie," members of the filmmaking industry and the public seem to think that this is all right. Granted, filmmaking is generally considered to be entertainment, and so viewers tend to give it very great leeway where truth and believability are concerned. But when films purport to tell true stories - especially the life stories of living people - they should be held to a higher standard.

Remember, this is the film biography of a real-life figure, with real names, places and events. But the authors of the movie altered the script of Nash's life to make a more effective, more impactful drama.

The fields of history and journalism have standards, have codes of ethics. The most time-honored of these ethics is the obligation to find and tell the truth. Rick Lyman does it in his work. David McCullough, author of the acclaimed biography John Adams, is prized for it. And Nasar did it in her book on Nash.

Why doesn't the film industry make this same, clear distinction between fact and fiction? (Remember, there are many other examples: most notably, Oliver Stone, criticized for being cavalier with history in his movies Nixon and JFK.)

The reason may be simple: the film industry is young, immature. After all, in journalism's salad days it was careless about this, too. McCullough lists in John Adams numerous examples of false and scurrilous fabrications by the press in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But it's time for the film industry to grow up and take responsibility for the truth. After all, more people will probably learn of Nash's life from the movie than from the book or from journalism. Shouldn't they learn the truth? If they - and other viewers of other movies - don't, won't that distort our understanding of history over time?

In the future, it's likely that movies and television will be as important vehicles for advancing our national story as journalism and history. Increasingly, people get their information in these video forms.

Now's the time for these industries to craft a set of strong ethics that cherish the distinction between fiction and fact, between entertainment and genuine history. A good place to start: Award the Oscar for best picture to some candidate other than A Beautiful Mind.

Maxwell King, executive director of the Heinz Endowments, is the former executive editor of The Inquirer.

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