Revolutionary Road, A Beautiful Mind and Truthfulness

The films Revolutionary Road and A Beautiful Mind both portray mathematicians turned mental patients who create havoc for their families. But the similarity ends there.

In director Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001), the facts of the real-life recovery of Nobel prize winner John Nash are fabricated to create a politically-correct version of mental illness — and Howard’s film was rewarded with four Oscars, including best picture and best director. In contrast, director Sam Mendes’s recent Revolutionary Road stays true to the facts of Richard Yates’s 1961 novel, including Yates’s now politically-incorrect more psychological perspective of mental illness – and Mendes’s film was not rewarded with any Oscars last February.

While the mental illness of John Nash (Russell Crowe) is the focus of Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, mental illness is not at the center of either Mendes’s film or Yates’s novel, but the contribution of mental patient John Givings (Michael Shannon) is vital in both the film and the novel.

What then is the center of Yates’s novel? In 1972 Yates told Ploughshares, “I thought I was writing a novel about abortion. . . a series of abortions, of all kinds — an aborted play, several aborted careers, any number of aborted ambitions and aborted plans and aborted dreams — all leading up to a real, physical abortion.” Mendes’s film certainly conveys that, and it is also true to Yate’s character John Givings, who serves as the outspoken truth teller in both film and novel. When Michael Shannon was asked by the Los Angeles Times to describe the movie and his character John Givings’s significance, he said:

He really is important to the story. It’s a hard movie to describe to people when they ask you what it’s about. But if you boil it down to its essence, it’s about these two people – Frank [Leonardo DiCaprio] and April [Kate Winslet] — trying to make a decision: Do we stay here and suffer silently or do we try to liberate ourselves and escape to a better life? The first time we see John they are celebrating their decision and kind of reveling in this newfound sense of freedom. John is there to kind of celebrate and validate their decision. Then John comes back, and this freedom has crumbled, and he’s there to castigate and punish them for their loss of faith. I think that’s the really beautiful thing about the character.

John Givings is pained, and he can be obnoxious, hurtful, disruptive, and tension producing – what mental health professionals label as “inappropriate.” But there are reasons for his anger, reasons that Yates did not reduce to defective biochemistry, and this gets the novel-faithful Mendes an F in political correctness.

The current PC explanation of serious mental illness brought to us by Big Pharma — follow the money trail — is that it is caused by this or that neurotransmitter or brain structure and has nothing to do with oppressive families and dehumanizing environments. It is also now PC to mock the notion that mentally-ill diagnosed people may sometimes be like canaries in the mine, more sensitive and reactive to insidious toxins.

John Givings — though psychiatrically hospitalized and a recipient of multiple electroshock treatments which have damaged his mathematical abilities — is clearly not delusional about oppressive family relationships, not wrong about meaningless jobs, not incorrect about gutless frauds, and not mistaken about a dehumanizing society. He, like many people I have known diagnosed with mental illness, feels alienated and powerless. And he is no diplomat. Truth serves as his only source of potency, and he uses it as both a constructive tool to celebrate and validate courage and as a hurtful weapon to castigate and punish gutlessness.

I am not alone in recognizing John Givings in real people diagnosed with severe mental illness. So did Richard Yates. Ploughshares asked Yates, “When you first planned the book, did you have John Givings in there?” Yates responded:

No, I didn’t. He occurred to me as a character about midway through the writing of the book. I felt I needed somebody in there to point up or spell out the story at crucial moments, and I did know a young man very much like that at the time, a long-term patient in a mental hospital who had an uncannily keen and very articulate insight into other people’s weaknesses, so I worked a fictionalized version of him into the book.

Today, the PC handling of Mr. Untreated Paranoid Schizophrenic is to depict him as having only meaningless craziness to utter until he begins taking his medication regularly, at which time he can function in the world and bring smiles to his long-suffering family. In this regard, Mendes gets another F on his PC report card by accurately depicting Yate’s John Givings, who may be a son of a bitch but one who does not voice meaningless craziness. John Givings has valuable observations about familial relationships and society, and the powerful Shannon is so compelling that you want him on the screen.

In contrast to Revolutionary Road, A Beautiful Mind is, ultimately, a feel-good movie about mental illness that steps on no powerful institution’s toes, and perhaps that is part of why it won all those Oscars.

First, let me be clear that Howard’s film did some good things, including his emphasis on the therapeutic value of supportive relationships and his hopeful message about the possibility of recovery. I know many people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, paranoid schizophrenia, and other severe mental illnesses who have gone on to have satisfying and meaningful lives — with or without medication, with or without doctors, but always with respect and support.

The shame is that Howard, perhaps afraid of upsetting the mental health establishment, gave Russell Crowe’s Nash a line which the real John Nash never said, a line which was untrue, a line which was unnecessary to move the story along, but a line which was completely necessary for the pharmaceutical industry and the institutions it financially supports — including the American Psychiatric Association, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and the drug-advertisement addicted media.

The line? In Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, John Nash, when informed that he was being considered for the 1994 Nobel Prize, mentions, “I take the newer medications.” However, as the documentary A Brilliant Madness (broadcast on PBS’s “American Experience” in 2002) reported, “Nash had stopped taking medication in 1970.”

Howard’s “newer medications” line served, in effect, as a product placement not for a single company but for an entire drug-dependent mental health industry that would show its appreciation. Former Boston Globe science journalist Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America, reported in 2002, “The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill has praised the film’s director, Ron Howard, for showing the ‘vital role of medication’ in Nash’s recovery.” However, notes Whitaker, Sylvia Nasar in her biography of Nash (also called A Beautiful Mind), reports something quite different about Nash’s recovery. Specifically, Nasar writes:

Nash’s refusal take the antipsychotic drugs after 1970, and indeed during most of the periods when he wasn’t in the hospital in the 1960s, may have been fortuitous. Taken regularly, such drugs, in a high percentage of cases, produce horrible, persistent, symptom like tardive dyskinesia. . . and a mental fog, all of which would have made his gentle reentry into the world of mathematics a near impossibility.

Nash’s recovery without psychiatric drugs is no anomaly. A third of so-called “chronic schizophrenic” patients released from Vermont State Hospital in the late 1950s completely recovered, reported psychologist Courtenay Harding in 1987; and she found that patients in the “best-outcomes” group shared one common factor: all had stopped taking antipsychotic drugs. So Howard actually could have made a more honest feel-good movie about the real life John Nash, but it would have been one that upset powerful institutions who are dependent on drug money.

The World Health Organization, in two different studies (1979 and 1992), reported that the United States and other “developed” countries are inferior to “developing” countries such as India, Nigeria, and Colombia in helping people diagnosed as psychotic to recover, One likely reason for this inferiority in the “developed world” is its almost complete reliance on drugs, and another likely reason is our relative absence of genuine community and supportive groups.

It is convenient for many people — and lucrative for drug companies and the institutions that they support – if all disruptive, crazy-sounding, tension-producing people can simply be handed off to doctors to be labeled and drugged. If we can neatly compartmentalize and medicalize the John Givings of the world, then families and society don’t have to halt the assembly line and ask questions such as: “What is exactly happening in this person’s life that has made him or her so angry or frightened? Why does he or she feel so alienated? Is society oppressive for many people, and is this person simply more unbridled in their reaction to that fact? Is there something suffocating about nuclear families in which temperamentally mismatched people are forced to have relationships? Should we be satisfied with a paycheck and a full belly — or is that not enough?

I have met many angry, rude, tension-producing people labeled with severe mental illness. Some of them are completely dominated by their own victimization and seek only to inflict payback pain on those around them. Others though, when feeling safe, state truths which, if taken seriously, would create a more loving family, a more caring community, and a more stimulating world.

When April and Frank take John seriously, he relaxes, stops being hurtful, and shares with them, among other insights, that “maybe it does take a certain amount of guts to see the emptiness, but it takes a whole hell of a lot more to see the hopelessness. And I guess when you do see the hopelessness, that’s where there’s nothing to do but take off. If you can.”

Richard Yates, Sam Mendes, and Michael Shannon remind us that people who are diagnosed with seriously mental illness can — when feeling respected — say profound things that are worth taking seriously. But in today’s PC mental health professional world, that kind of reminder is mocked as a romanticization of a disease. Amidst the emptiness of such a world, where only disturbing symptoms and biochemistry are taken seriously, it is no accident that many hurting people become hopeless and conclude that there’s nothing to do but take off – any way that they can.

Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).