“We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.”
One of the challenging aspects of analyzing a film is choosing which lens to view its story through. With so many theories and books out there, it’s not surprising to find variations on story structure and their resulting interpretations when everybody’s playing from a different deck of cards.
Compounding the problem is when a story comes along that’s structured in such a way its apparent story – that what seems to be – ends up being something much different once the filmmakers pull the veil back and reveal certain truths to the audience. We’re essentially spoon fed events that seem to set one story in motion only to be given a twist that plays against our expectations, turning the narrative on a dime. The challenge here is while the underpinnings of what’s really going on remain masked, they have to make sense going both forward and in reverse while working within the context of the apparent story that we were lead to believe was being told.
Such is the case with Ron Howard’s award-winning A Beautiful Mind where we follow young prodigy John Nash’s early life as a student in Princeton to his working as a secretive code-cracker for the Department of Defense – only to learn he’s actually been suffering from schizophrenia and many key characters in his life are delusions. This revelation forces us to re-examine everything that came before in an attempt to put this new information into context. In short, it changes the story’s apparent structure which, in turn, changes the story’s meaning – and to do that, the spine that it’s all hung on changes – starting with the inciting incident: the moment when the once-latent problem first emerged.
One of the more popular resources on the internet for screenwriters, The Script Lab, offers a five point breakdown for A Beautiful Mind – however in reading their analysis, one gets the notion they were deliberating the inciting incident from the audience’s perspective as the story unfolds rather than from the required objective reading once the story has been completely told:
John Nash (Russell Crowe) tells Charles (Paul Bettany) about his desire to create an equilibrium stratagem of game theory in which nobody loses (“governing dynamics”), an accomplishment that would revolutionize mathematics and the world. (00:12:53)
In fact, this doesn’t feel like an inciting incident at all; it’s merely a stated goal of what Nash desires (which shouldn’t necessarily be attributed to the theory, either). Creating an equilibrium stratagem is really his methodology for achieving a more universal need for purpose, meaning and acceptance – attributes the audience can readily identify with – and a point that will be explored in a few moments.
This particular reading doesn’t capture the spine of the story, either. Had this been the actual inciting incident – what throws Nash’s life into a state of unbalance – the story would have been over at the end of the first act.
Likewise, The Story Department’s analysis points toward the same end:
The sequence opens with Nash’s objective to find a truly original idea. His attitude to his fellow students may seem shy, but it’s clearly arrogant (his flaw). He considers himself superior to the others, those ‘hacks’. The sequence ends on the Inciting Incident: He’s been told he desperately needs to show results or he’s out.
As with the Script Lab’s analysis, if this were to be the event that throws Nash’s life into array, then the story’s central problem’s resolution comes at the end of the first act when the professor acknowledges Nash’s breakthrough and informs him he can have any placement he wants. Problem solved…right? Naturally the completion of that endeavor only leads to further complications, but we have to take into account what those complications really are and where they stem from.
The concept of discovering a truly original idea is born on the rooftop, but it’s not the incident that throws Nash’s life into a state of inequity by any means – it’s merely the point where his desire is confirmed, leading him to seek a greater purpose of relevancy or “mattering” as shown in this clip:
What was needed for Nash to discuss this drive was Charles – and it’s Charle’s arrival as “The prodigal roommate” in the scene after Nash rebukes Hansen that is the story’s true inciting incident. It’s not even “Charles” that barges into Nash’s quarters claiming to be his roommate – it’s schizophrenia, or rather its manifestation in physical form, that shows up, the effects of which Nash battles for the remainder of the story. Of course this isn’t apparent to the audience at this point because the true story – what the film is really about – isn’t revealed until this scene nearly half-way through:
When we look at what’s really going on an analyze it against the scene on the rooftop, everything falls into place: while Charles is born from schizophrenia, he, just as William Parcher, become something representative of Nash’s desire (to matter). But as articulated by Nash in the rooftop scene, one has to first have someone to matter to:
NASH: The truth is, I don’t like people much. And they don’t much like me.
CHARLES: But why, for your obvious wit and charm? Seriously, John. Mathematics? Mathematics is never going to lead you to a higher truth. And you know why? Because it’s boring!
NASH: You know half these schoolboys are already published? I cannot waste time with these classes, these books, memorizing the assumptions of LESSOR MORTALS! I need to look through to governing dynamics. Find a truly original idea. That’s the only way I’ll ever distinguish myself. It’s the only way I’ll ever–
And therein lies a conundrum: Nash does not like people much and vice versa, but at the same time he needs desperately to matter in the eyes of others – a difficult feat when you’re carrying two chips on your shoulder to keep yourself “well balanced”. Now here’s a little trick: go back and play the scene again – but instead of watching, close your eyes and listen to where the emphasis is placed.
Charles, in actuality a fragment of Nash’s fragile psyche, is in some regards his own self-conscious talking to him, later fracturing off to Parcher who further fulfills the need of “mattering” as he instills Nash’s psuedo-work with a sense of important grandiosity – all in his head, of course – but none of that would exist had the schizophrenia not manifested itself in the form of Charles waltzing into Nash’s room, becoming his confidant and allowing the audience to hear first-hand Nash’s inner-turmoil.
So is there a way we can actually give this notion of a inciting incident a litmus test? As it turns out, there is: it’s typically tied to the story’s midpoint and climax – that’s what creates “the spine”. Charles is there at the midpoint, as shown the previous clip, but he’s absent, yet the basis of, the emotional climax for a reason.
Analyzing the climax, we see Nash receives validation from his peers via the pen ceremony in Princeton, but what’s important to keep in mind here is the scene’s purpose: to ensure Nash himself won’t “dance around the podium, strip naked and squawk like a chicken” if awarded the highest distinction in his field: the Nobel Prize.
In other words, it’s the point where Nash’s true desire – to matter in the eyes of others – is within grasp, but it’s only obtainable because of his ability to acknowledge and live with his delusions under control. As he says, he still sees things that are not here – but has learned to choose not to acknowledge them. In doing so, he’s been able to establish meaningful relationships and live a more fulfilling life, culminating in his being awarded with one of the highest distinctions possible.
Upon his accepting the Nobel Prize, Nash’s short speech harkens back to Charles’ rooftop retort about mathematics not being the thing which will lead him to a higher truth. Nash acknowledges this point, stating he’s made the most important discovery of his career. In fact, the most important discover of his life.
NASH: It’s only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found. I’m only here tonight because of you. You are the reason I am. You are all my reasons. Thank you.
His journey complete, Nash has gone from an isolated man who doesn’t much like people to one who has not only achieved the highest of distinctions, but also the deeper understanding of what it truly means to matter to someone else who, in turn, matters to him the most.