Enigma vs. A Beautiful Mind

The difference between these films is like the difference between mere artistic license and historical revisionism: pageantry and fraud.

Two films recently told similar stories with differing results. The first, A Beautiful Mind, found itself uniquely in favor of both the critics and the public (why, I haven’t yet calculated). The second, Enigma, did not far so well. The latter was an independent feature fronted by Mick Jagger and company (yes, he of Rolling Stones). The former was a bloated Hollywood drama, with all the bankroll prowess of DreamWorks behind it.

Similarities

  • True tales
  • Supporting characters
  • Musical scores

Both films aspire to tell interesting stories. How well they do it remains to be seen and judged for yourself. Beautiful Mind is based rather languidly on the tale of mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe), who developed new economic theories in the early 50s. His “game theory” eventually won him the Nobel Economics Prize, after years of shunning by the Nobel committee because of his life-long struggle with schizophrenia. His is a harrowing story, that of a flawed hero and a loving, understanding wife (Jennifer Connelly). During his bouts with the disease, Nash suffered greatly from paranoid delusions at the height of the Red Scare. These weaknesses drove him to lend his talents to the government for code-breaking.

While Enigma does not center on specific true-to-life historical characters, it tells the broadly true story of the Enigma machine, Hitler’s ingenious communication codec (coder/decoder) device used during WWII, and how it was cracked by British mathematicians at Bletchley Park (despite what U-571 would have you believe). The story surrounds brilliant young Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), also mentally unstable. The source of his imbalance? A woman, Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows), with suspicious background and even more suspicious disappearance. He and her roommate, Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet), begin to piece together the enigmatic puzzle which shrouds Claire’s whereabouts. What they find is international intrigue regarding the Katyn Incident, only recently (April 1990) disclosed by post-communist Russia.

Both films have shady supporting characters as well. For Beautiful Mind, the mysterious William Parcher (the always wonderful Ed Harris) is at times Nash’s shadow. Enigma has its own man-in-black in Mr. Wigram (the superb Jeremy Northam). As the twists mount, these men may or may not be government agents.

The film scores, too, are very moving. For Beautiful Mind, James Horner continues to amaze with his variations on simple melodies and wafting choral tunes. He doesn’t disappoint here either.

Enigma‘s John Barry (Dances with Wolves) crafts sweeping signature lilt reminiscent of his haunting Somewhere in Time. He beautifully captures the essence of the mystery of Enigma, hand-in-hand with the filmmakers.

Differences

  • Writers
  • Mathematical details
  • Bad history
  • Direction
  • Tone

Enigma‘s screenwriter Tom Stoppard is very good at period comedies, as in his wildly successful Shakespeare in Love and the wild parody Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Here, he very craftily works all the action and timeline into a concise retelling.

Beautiful Mind‘s Akiva Goldsman, however was responsible for the final nail on the Batman coffin, Batman & Robin. Hopefully, he will help the David Twohy Pitch Black franchise with its upcoming sequel.

Another grating difference between the films is in the mathematical details. The cryptology in Enigma is very soundly portrayed, even using an authentic Enigma machine for the production. The film is almost a 2-hour crash course for the uninformed. One gets a very good sense for the sheer complexity of cracking codes. Jericho tries to explain to his superior why he needs more German U-boat transmissions: “I’ll be finding a needle in a million haystacks. If we stop now, I’ll be finding a needle in a billion haystacks.” And considering that the Enigma machine had a code strength of up to 1,000 trillion combinations, their job was immense.

In Beautiful Mind, the mathematics are all anesthetized and dumbed down. Instead of seeing the math nerds sweating over complex problems, we witness gladiatorial Russell Crowe brute-forcing his way through Soviet encryption and deciphering spy messages encoded in newspaper clippings. His decryption methods are presented visually as numbers floating and spiraling around until, magically, Nash arrives at an answer. Eureka! It’s all in his head without any appreciation for the process for our benefit. And that’s Beautiful Mind‘s biggest weakness: dishonesty.

It gets more worse.

Where Enigma elaborates, Beautiful Mind hallucinates (not unlike Nash). The lack of authenticity in the latter is clearest after one has seen and enjoyed the former. Enigma is all the more satisfying precisely because it is truer to the letter of history; whereas, Beautiful Mind fancifully takes egregious liberties to the point of caricature. It’s the difference between historical revisionism and mild artistic license: fraud and pageantry. The rift is greater than mere technicality.

And that’s the shame of it. John Nash, a flesh-and-blood faulted man deserving of a more faithful biopic, is relegated to smarmy sentimental hero. In that sense, Beautiful Mind is not unlike 1999’s The Hurricane, a similar film that befell an inconsistent (and unjust) fate. That film surrounded the sorry tale of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (a superb Denzel Washington), the middle-weight boxer wrongly imprisoned for murder, and the people who aided in his fight to prove his innocence.

Apparently, the story embellished heavily on Carter’s character and the peripheral details. True or no, these should be inconsequential to an objective review of the film. Realistically, a film (as with any piece of art) should be viewed on its own terms and judged on its own merit. A cinematic adaptation of an historical account will never render the truth to the letter, by the nature of good storytelling. And the same should be said of both The Hurricane and Beautiful Mind. Instead, Hurricane was panned critically as well as by the Oscars. This seems woefully inconsistent with the accolades lauded to Beautiful Mind.

Historical accuracy aside, it’s only fair that I critique Beautiful Mind on it’s own ground. Nevertheless, I still am frustrated by it. At it’s core, it’s determined to manipulate. The actors are all playing out of control, as if director Ron Howard never knew quite where to reel them in. Crowe employs so many ticks and odd mannerisms as to render his character hammy and slapstick. Connelly seems to be in direct competition with Crowe for Oscars, as she resorts to screaming and bitter melodrama, trying to wrench the empathy from the audience.

Enigma, on the other hand, is quite sublime. There’s no over-the-top antics, just quiet subdued forcefulness. It’s clear that Director Michael Apted has a tight rein and his attention to the details of this immense mystery are quite astute. He focus his camera on all the pertinent props and locales, dragging us audience members along for the serpentine story. This keen observation is absolutely vital to Enigma‘s success since it’s heart is thriller wrapped in a tale or romance. Beautiful Mind however is really just simple soap drama inside a thriller wrapper.

Apted’s actors are no less picture perfect. In good realistic keeping with her character, Winslet is the epitome of the frumpy bespectacled schoolmarm throughout the film. Scott too looks like he’s been pulling one too many all-nighters at university, with his constant disheveled mop and bloodshot hangover eyes (the telltale signs of an overworked geek). Northam is yet again a pure joy to watch on the big screen. He’s a veritable Clark Gable of our times, all dapper and witty. His dialog is as sharp as his steeling presence. Of course, I suppose it helps that these actors are all British, and this being a British film gives it a sort of naturally understated tone. This lends itself ideally for the story: quietly building tension.

All in all, both A Beautiful Mind and Enigma are entertaining, but ultimately Enigma is much more satisfying a story and film.

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