More on John Nash

Critic's Choice

Television

April 28, 2002|By David Zurawik

You've seen the movie and lived through the Oscar hoopla surrounding A Beautiful Mind. Now in American Experience, PBS offers its take on Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and schizophrenic John Nash with A Brilliant Madness. Not surprisingly, real life is darker and a little more complicated than Hollywood's version.

While the arc of the story is still that of the Hero Quest, A Brilliant Madness acknowledges some of the facts ignored and / or glossed over in the film: Nash's first marriage and the wife and child he appears to have callously abandoned; an episode after his first discharge from a prestigious private hospital in which he withdrew all his pension money and wandered around Europe attempting to renounce his American citizenship; his second wife divorcing him; and a period during which he was living essentially as a homeless person.

Philosophically, the most important difference between this PBS biography and the film involves the role of community. While some members of the community of mathematicians who studied with Nash at Princeton were shown to be sympathetic to him in the film, PBS introduces us to a group of male and female colleagues who were absolutely steadfast on his behalf -- monitoring his care in mental institutions, helping his family, getting him university teaching jobs, and creating research posts for him after he was too ill to teach.

That's an important story. Both the Hollywood and the PBS version of this Hero Quest end with the triumphant return of Nash to the community, but in the real-life version, it is as much a result of community support as it is the heroic effort of a lone figure.

A Brilliant Madness airs at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 22).

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