Close this search box.

32: A Beautiful Mind

Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!

Buy me a coffeeBuy me a coffee


Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.


Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Two miles north of the border between Virginia and West Virginia lies the small town of Bluefield, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. It was here that John Nash, who served in France during World War I, lived with his wife Margaret, although most people called her by her middle name, Virginia.

John was an electrical engineer by trade, and worked at the Appalachian Electric Power Company in Bluefield, while Virginia had worked as an English and Latin teacher before marrying John.

The happy couple’s life changed dramatically when, on June 13th, 1928, they welcomed their first child into the world. John Forbes Nash, Jr., was born at the Bluefield Sanitarium, a hospital that was located at what is now a First Century Bank.

As he was growing up, John, Jr. was forced to look for scientific knowledge outside the railroad and coal community in Bluefield. He went to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, where he had a major in chemical engineering.

John didn’t do so well with the mechanical drawing required for chemical engineering, so he shifted to just chemistry. Again, he wasn’t a fan of this area of study as he quickly learned chemistry requires a lot of lab work. It was more than just being able to think well. So this is how John got into mathematics.

After graduating from Carnegie, John was offered fellowships at both Harvard and Princeton. He ended up going with Princeton because it was closer to his hometown of Bluefield, West Virginia.

And that’s where the movie picks up; in 1947 as John Nash, who’s played by Russell Crowe in the film, enters Princeton University. Early on, John meets Charles Herman, who’s played by Paul Bettany.

Here’s where we come across the first inaccuracy in the film, and probably the biggest one. Much of the movie relies on the fact that John hallucinates. He sees people who aren’t there, and one of those is his roommate, Charles Herman. This isn’t true. In fact, the real John Nash didn’t hallucinate in this way.

He didn’t see people who weren’t there, but he did hear voices. However, this didn’t happen in the 1940s like the movie claims. According to John, in an interview he did with PBS, it wasn’t until 1964 that he started hearing voices.

Back in the movie, John has the idea to write a paper when he’s at the bar with some of his friends. A blonde beauty, played by Eva Burkley in the film, walks into the bar with some of her friends.

As John and his friends are trying to figure out who’s going to go over to ask Eva’s character out, John comes up with the determination that if they all go over to her they’ll cancel each other out. After this, John rushes out of the bar, stopping only to say “Thank you” to Eva’s confused character. Then we see a time montage as John is working on what turns out to be his paper on governing dynamics.

This never happened. And, in truth, the example the movie gives isn’t really accurate to John’s theory. It’s referred to as Game Theory, and it’s not something John invented. It was pioneered by another John, John von Neumann, in the early 20th century.

But John’s theory expanded on von Neumann’s work to explain what would happen in a non-cooperative game. A great example of John’s theory can be explained simply with what’s now known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Let’s say you’re one of two people who get arrested for something. In the interrogation room, the cops tell you that if you testify against the other guy, they’ll cut you a deal while throw the book at the other guy.

But you know they’re probably making the same deal with the other guy in another interrogation room. So what do you do?

Your best result would come if both you and the other prisoner keep quiet. However, according to John Nash’s theory, something that is now known as the Nash equilibrium, it’s more likely that both you and the other prisoner will confess.

Why? Because you can’t control what other people do. So without being able to talk to the other prisoner to come up with a plan together, the strategy of keeping quiet is extremely risky. As a result, it’s more likely that both you and the other prisoner will confess.

It’s a theory that countless people have used in their negotiating and strategy tactics. And it’s a scenario we’ve seen time and time again in movies and TV today. This may not seem new to us, but we have the benefit of building our current scenarios on John’s work, don’t we?

In the movie, after coming up with this theory John gets called into the Pentagon to decrypt some code. He does it in his head, much to the astonishment of everyone else. They’re latitude and longitude coordinates. These are used by a Russian group of terrorists who are planning to detonate a bomb inside the United States.

And that’s how, according to the movie, John gets a placement at the Wheeler Defense Labs on the MIT campus. Here, John’s duties are split between being a teacher and doing top secret jobs for a man named William Parcher, who’s played by Ed Harris in the film.

All of these is made up for the movie. The gist, however, is fairly close to reality. The truth is there never has been a Wheeler Defense Labs at MIT. But John did work at MIT as a professor between the years of 1951 and 1959.

After the movie was released, one of John’s colleagues at MIT, a Professor Isador M. Singer, said he didn’t recognize anything about MIT in the movie.

As for William Parcher, we already learned that John Nash never saw people. He did hear voices, but as far as we know he never gave them names. So the whole plot line where Parcher is a secret government agent recruiting John Nash to decrypt Russian codes is made up.

Of course, the movie claims it was all made up inside John’s head, but the story that it was made up inside John’s head was, in fact, made up for the movie.

Although the movie shows John trying to pick up girls at the bar periodically throughout, it doesn’t mention one of the primary women he had a relationship with. Her name was Eleanor Stier, and the two started dating in 1952. John ended up breaking off the relationship when he found out Eleanor was pregnant. In 1953, Eleanor gave birth to a son, John David Stier. But John Nash refused to admit Eleanor’s son was his.

Another part the movie never mentions were John’s homosexual experiences. Perhaps the most prominent of these was with a man named John Milnor, who was also a mathematician. This happened while the two Johns were at the RAND Corporation.

And that’s another thing the movie never mentions. The RAND Corporation was basically a military think tank, and John, like many other brilliant scientific minds of the 1940s and 1950s, was recruited into the corporation based out of Santa Monica, California.

He worked there for a few years, and while it’s never been proven, many historians believe this is where much of the seeds of secrecy, paranoia and political obsessions began.

One of the details the movie did get right, though, was how John and Alicia met. Oh I don’t mean the scene where Alicia opened the window, but simply the fact that Alicia was one of John’s students in John’s Advanced Calculus for Engineers class. In the movie, Alicia Lardé is played by Jennifer Connelly.

The real Alicia would later recall that John was the, “fair-haired boy of the math department.” On the other side, John said Alicia was one of the few girls who attracted his attention.

Although the timeline of the movie is a bit off. In the movie, we see a happy wedding with John and Alicia. Afterward, the text on the screen dates the next scene as October of 1954. So the wedding must’ve happened before this.

After they’re married, in the movie, John’s condition starts to deteriorate. He grows increasingly paranoid, urged on by Ed Harris’ character, Parcher, and the belief that the Russians are chasing after him.

In truth, John and Alicia were married in 1957. Two years later, John’s mental illness began to take hold. That same year, on May 20th, 1959, John and Alicia had a son, named John Charles Martin Nash.

And while Parcher’s Soviet plot was made up for the film, perhaps the idea for this was from the very real delusion John had that anyone wearing a red necktie was a part of a secret communist organization.

But many of John’s delusions were much further out there than that.

At one point, the University of Chicago offered John a faculty position, but he turned it down because, according to him, he was due to become the emperor of Antarctica. John also thought aliens were sending him messages through The New York Times, and later would be concerned that both the U.S. government and the aliens were teaming up to destroy his reputation. Eventually, John became convinced he was tasked by God to come up with the number that would prove the existence of God.

All of these delusions didn’t happen at the same time, but they show you just a few of the things John’s schizophrenia caused.

In the movie, John ends up going to a psychiatric hospital. This is done against his will as Dr. Rosen, who’s played by Christopher Plummer, and his aides have to forcibly take John to the hospital. The movie mentions treatments taking place five times a week for ten weeks—or about 70 days.

The details of this are made up for the film, but John did spend time at the McLean Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital just outside of Boston. It was Alicia who admitted him.

There he was treated with insulin shock therapy for a period of 50 days, according to a later recollection by John, before he was released. But he didn’t stick around like he did in the movie.

After John was released, he resigned from MIT and left the country. For months, John wandered around Europe. He tried to renounce his United States citizenship, likely due to his paranoid state of mind. This was the paranoia that led to the belief of the U.S. government and aliens teaming up, and many more delusions. Alicia worked with the State Department to have him deported back to the States, though.

When he returned, John spent a lot of time in hospitals. According to John, he’d be admitted into a hospital for around five to eight months at a time. He was never admitted voluntarily, and he always fought it.

In the movie, John and Alicia seem to have a happy relationship, albeit an incredibly tense and stressful one due to the medication and John’s illness.

In truth, though, John resented Alicia’s sending him to the psychiatric hospital. It took years, but Alicia finally had enough with John’s emotional departure from their relationship. In 1963, John and Alicia were divorced.

Still, and this is a testament to the woman Alicia was, she remained friends with John. She continued to help John with his illness. She just did so as a friend instead of as a spouse.

In the movie, John makes his way back to Princeton, where he asks his old rival for a job. This rival mathematician is Martin Hansen, who’s played by Josh Lucas in the film.

The details of the conversation, or that John went back to talk to Martin for the job were made up for the film, but the gist here is true. By that what I mean is Martin Hansen is a real person, and he was John’s rival at Princeton. And John did get a job back at Princeton after returning to the United States.

Probably one of the biggest differences between the movie and reality here is the timeline. John’s mental illness began to show in 1959, but it really took hold in the early 1960s. It wasn’t until 1970 that his condition started to improve. He was ready to go back to work in the 1980s.

So, according to John’s later recollection, there was a period of about 25 years where he suffered from “partially deluded thinking.”

According to the movie, when he’s back at Princeton, he still sees the same three people: Charles, Parcher, and Charles’s niece, Marcee, who’s played by Vivien Cardone. But John is starting to learn how to ignore these characters. And that’s helping.

We already learned these three characters weren’t a part of the real story, but we also learned John did hear voices. And so the gist in the movie is similar to what happened—John started to ignore the voices he heard.

There’s a great series of interviews that John did with PBS; I’d highly recommend checking them out, and I’ll make sure to put a link in the show notes. In these interviews, John explained that he started hearing voices in the summer of 1964. He equated the voices as being similar to a dream, where you’re not expected to be rational. He said he found a lot of the voices to be in political terms, so he was then able to combat the voices by convincing himself he didn’t want to listen to a political argument.

The movie ends with a moving acceptance speech of John’s Nobel prize. This comes shortly after the committee sends a representative to Princeton to determine John’s stability. In the speech, John commends Alicia for her support in such a way that leaves no dry eyes.

While it’s true that John did win a Nobel Prize in 1994, he did not give a speech. Although the Nobel committee did send Professor Jörgen Weibull, a faculty member at the Stockholm School of Economics to Princeton to determine John’s credibility. That scene where Russell Crowe’s version of John Nash is hesitant to enter the faculty lounge with Jörgen? That happened, and later, Jörgen would say that hesitation to enter the lounge was part of the reason why he recommended John receive the Nobel prize. According to Jörgen, it showed an insecurity and obscurity from John that Jörgen he felt needed to be corrected.

Oh, and that tradition with the faculty laying pens down on the table in front of John? That’s not a real thing, either.

However, John didn’t give a speech. And since John and Alicia were divorced in 1994, he wouldn’t have commended her in the way he did in the movie. According to John’s unofficial biography by Sylvia Nasar, he did give a short speech at a small party in Princeton. I’d really recommend picking up her book, also called A Beautiful Mind, to learn more about this speech and really to dig into the real details of John’s life.

In the end, there’s a couple lines of text on screen that explain John’s theories have influenced global trade negotiations and much more. This is very true. The Nash equilibrium and John’s other works have been a major influence around the world.

The final text in the movie says that John and Alicia Nash live in Princeton. According to the movie, he still walks to campus every day.

This is not true, but it was true when the movie was released in 2001. In fact, it was the same year the movie was released that John and Alicia remarried. Together, the couple did some tremendous work in support of mental illness.

In 2015, John and Alicia traveled to Norway where John was awarded an Abel Prize, an award modeled after the Nobel Prize for outstanding scientific work in mathematics. The ceremony was on May 19th, 2015.

On May 23rd, John and Alicia returned home from Norway. On their trip home from the airport, their taxi driver lost control and the car hit the guard rail. Both John and Alicia were killed immediately when they were ejected from the car. John was 86, and Alicia was 82.



Latest episode