On the Princeton campus in 1947, a young Nash (played by Russell Crowe as though he's hiding a remarkable secret) has come to prove himself the greatest mind of his generation. He is standoffish and self-absorbed, unable and unwilling to make friends. "I don't like people," he explains through a soft Southern accent and the mischievous smile of a man who knows everything but feels nothing. "And they don't like me." He has but one friend on campus, a roommate named Charles (A Knight's Tale's Paul Bettany), and theirs is a peculiar relationship -- that, more or less, of a man and his muse.
Nash, a man without Ivy League pedigree, wants only to matter, and when he makes his mark with a doctoral thesis about game theory -- "His insight," Nasar explains in her book, "was that the game would be solved when every player independently chose his best response to the other players' best strategies" -- Nash is unable to distinguish between accomplishment and its attendant recognition. To him, it was inevitable that he would be recognized as a genius.
In 1953, Nash is called upon by the government to crack Russian codes, which he can do by staring, endlessly, at seemingly random strings of letters. His acumen brings him to the attention of a man in black named Parcher (Ed Harris), who insists that the Russians are communicating to each other in newspaper articles and ads. Nash comes to find meaning in everything, no matter how meaningless. For him, there is no such thing as coincidence -- and, for a while, we are left to wonder whether such work has indeed rendered him crazy and paranoid.
Inevitably, it takes a toll on his life and love for Alicia Lardes (a remarkable Jennifer Connelly), the student who seduced then married the teacher. Their relationship begins couched in a mathematician's magic -- in one remarkable scene that bounds between the saccharin and the sanguine, Nash uses his finger to light up constellations in the night sky for Alicia -- only to wind up as a torturous, dangerous mess.
Nash is committed to a mental hospital, where Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer) diagnoses him as a schizophrenic. He is forced to endure shock treatment, and the bright light inside him dies a little; Crowe's face slackens, his eyes dim, his body goes flaccid. In the years that follow, he will come back to life and reopen his eyes, if only to stare down the demons who have taken shape. But the John Nash of Princeton 1947 is a myth -- a half-forgotten legend. At least until the 1980s and '90s, when his theories became so much a part of the culture that they are now taken for granted.
As a romance, it's wrenching. As a thriller, it's captivating. In the end, though, it's a film about which one doesn't want to say too much; it plays almost like The Sixth Sense; things seen aren't always to be believed. To decipher them here would ruin the ambiguity, spoil the romance and dull the ache. What could well have been a lachrymose exercise of the sort Howard is known for fashioning is instead as haunting and long-lasting as a reverie -- or a hallucination, perhaps.