Culture Corner

The Elegant Movie – Thoughts on the films The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game
By Bernie Langs

Biophysics as studied at The Rockefeller University (photo courtesy of Mario Morgado – see for more of Mario’s work).

[Note: Professor John Nash, featured in this set of reviews, passed away tragically in an auto accident as this article was going to press.] The physicist Brian Greene named his widely successful book, which served as an introduction for many in the general public to the mysteries and wonder of string theory, “The Elegant Universe.” This title gave that sub-specialty of the study of physics a kind of mysterious and glamorous dressing up of sorts. I enjoyed that book immensely, although I did struggle at times with his sometimes less than laymen’s explanations. But I was definitely enamored by the excitement he generated about the study of physics and came away feeling that it was physics itself that was elegant, since the universe and the Biblically-termed “heavens and earth” are more what we make of them ourselves from a “blank canvas” rather than having any inherent, purposeful order or Divine scheme and blueprint. God’s abhorrence of the roll of the dice being, of course, duly noted, Professor Einstein.

The genres of mathematics and physics are difficult to master, with many students peaking in high school or early college in the ability to understand them. To bastardize an amusing observation on the nether world spelled out on the television show “The Sopranos”: Math is hard—that’s never been disputed. Perhaps this is because at some point in its study, the student cannot just throw back extrapolations of dictated, memorized facts as done for other academic courses using cookie-cutter solutions. At some point the mathematicians and physicists have to enter a realm of intuition in tandem with a talent to locate obscure paths on the road to solutions through a maze of often maneuvering electron-like unfixed data. I don’t even know if that is true, but that’s my own hunch on why I was an “A” math student until hitting the harsh roadblock of calculus, the wall on which I came to a dead stop with such studies.

The general consensus that math and science at the highest levels is “really, really hard” has led to several movies in recent years romanticizing the notion of the lone genius mathematician and physicist, and I for one enjoy these kinds of films. The general plot lines of such movies show the trials, tribulations and struggles of the men and women who are at the top of these fields, where the mind can be subject to terrific loneliness amid troubled social situations that are a result of seeing and knowing what most people can’t begin to fathom.

The first movie that I saw that explored the fictional tale of the genius mathematician was Good Will Hunting starring a then very young Matt Damon as a math prodigy from a working-class background in South Boston. Damon’s character, Will Hunting, having grown up as a beaten foster child, is in and out of trouble with the law as he runs around with an amusing group of loose characters (including the actors Ben and Casey Affleck). Hunting is unearthed and discovered by a Fields Medalist professor at MIT (Stellan Skarsgård) where Damon, as a janitor, fairly easily solves near impossible math problems left on a chalkboard in a hallway for the brilliant students of the university to try their hands at solving. The story evolves to include emotional scenes with Damon’s appointed psychiatrist, played beautifully by the late Robin Williams, as Williams tries to free the scarred youth from his stunted emotional growth so he can ease into maturation and grow into the man he is destined to be. There’ a wonderful scene where Will’s girlfriend, a Harvard premedical student played by Minnie Driver, asks with wide-eyed wonder, “How do you do it?” Damon explains with confidence that just as Mozart could simply look at a piano keyboard and solve the puzzle of making music, he can use his intuitions to see mathematical solutions as they open up before him.

Next up in the genre was A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe as the deeply disturbed mathematician John Nash, who went on to overcome his mind’s demons and win the Nobel Prize for his theoretical work in game theory. Crowe’s depiction of the descent into madness that leads to a horrific hospitalization is heart wrenching. The life of Nash is shown in the film from his student days at Princeton to the start of his twilight years after his return to that university, and it is a marvelous and intellectually stimulating journey to behold. There are scenes where Crowe is filmed as Nash working out his complex formulas with an erasable marker on the latticed windows of the library at Princeton. Although most of us who watch the film can’t come close to translating these numbers and brackets and symbols into any sense at all, we understand that it is a poetic language that is on display and we can intuit it as graceful and beautiful as any actual work of poetry or music.Time rolled on after A Beautiful Mind and we currently have been treated to two films in this area of professorial biography, The Imitation Game about the British wartime math code breaker, Alan Turing, and The Theory of Everything, a biopic of Stephen Hawking.

I enjoyed both of these films and I am appreciative that in the sea of madness that is Hollywood’s idea of “entertainment” that they were both able to find their way to the big screen and worldwide distribution. “The Theory of Everything” boasts the Oscar-winning performance of Eddie Redmayne as Hawking. Redmayne, in incredible fashion, transforms himself from a promising and brilliant physics student at Cambridge to an absolute genius of an astrophysicist, writing on subjects such as theoretical time and black holes as he is nearly completely crippled by a motor neuron disease. The movie business, given what it has to be in terms of catering to popular tastes to insure box office appeal, focuses less on the mind and science, and more on the personal relationship between the physicist and his wife, Jane Hawking (sweetly played by Felicity Jones). I did enjoy the emotional family story, but there is no doubt that it consumes the film and so many of Hawking’s accomplishments are quickly glossed over. Nothing can take away from Redmayne’s admirable, awe-inspiring performance and the way in which he captures our familiar idea of the heroic Hawking. One could even say it’s a role for the ages, not too surprising given that Redmayne was so interesting, complex, and intriguing in a supporting role in the Robert De Niro-directed feature film “The Good Shepherd” and yet oddly miscast, while still displaying talent, in Les Miserables, where he shares the operatic stage with the unlikely singing Russell Crowe (are you not entertained!). Nash meets Hawking. Interesting. An actor, the actual man, is, one could postulate, the sum of his roles.

That leads us to The Imitation Game. Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is enlisted as part of an elite group of top-notch, mathematical Brits during World War II, to figure out the impossibly complex “Enigma” secret code used by the Germans to relay their strategic moves across the various parts of their war machine. And it is a machine that Turing builds to solve the mystery. Cumberbatch, an amazing actor to say the least, seems to be making a living out of playing socially awkward, blindingly brilliant loners, since he is also the star of the excellent television series from the BBC, “Sherlock” (as in Holmes). The actress Kiera Knightly is the lone woman amongst the not-so-merry band of mathematicians on the quest to solve the near-impossible riddle, and it’s great to see this talented actress do her work and magic on the eccentric Turing, making him put his ego aside and join in conjunction with the others for the higher purpose of a wartime nation.

Turing was horribly and famously chemically castrated in the UK after the war as punishment for the crime of being homosexual. Soon after his “cure,” he took his own life. Cumberbatch, who lost the Academy Award nod to Redmayne, almost deserved a tie for the statue, such is his complex performance. There aren’t many Hollywood films featuring a protagonist often reduced to whimpering sobs while maintain a strong, compelling dignity. Britain, showing its great solid upper lip, recently retracted its ignorant, murderous damning of Turing in a fabulous gesture of a posthumous reprieve and award. I am reminded of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the Medieval knight played by John Cleese, believing he is slaying the captors of a kidnapped princess (Terry Jones in the tower!), lays murderous waste to a wedding in progress in a castle. Realizing his error, Cleese stands on a grand stairway to the sounds of the groaning injured and weeping women and with a broad smile, cries out, “Sorry! So sorry! My mistake!” to which a man yells back “You killed the groom!” For the groom and for Turing, it’s a case of “far too little and much too late.”

In all four movies I’ve mentioned, the science and math take back seat to the emotional and personal relationship stories. However, the moments that they do dig into the mind’s matter, it is fascinating. Matt Damon and Stellan Skarsgård finish a proof in the MIT professor’s office by crossing out equivalents on either side of a blackboard equation to an almost giddy happiness. The “eureka” moments of both Nash and Turing occur amid bar and party scenes with their drinking friends, but the excitement generated is wonderful and palpable. The professor (David Thewlis), however, who presides over Stephen Hawking’s Ph.D. studies does a far more convincing job in his role as a professor at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films than as a physicist at Cambridge. Yet his kind spirit, I must say, is contagious.

To reach my own office in the Development Department at Rockefeller University, I have to pass by the offices of the university’s physicists. I do so quietly and with respect, because there is a tactile (in the art historian Bernard Berenson’s theoretical use of the term) energy in the air and the excitement of slow and steady discovery that keeps one on the verge of awe at what the human mind is capable of at its very best. Just the books and bound journals on the shelves alone are enough to entrance, as are the wonderful black and white group photos of physicists of days long past. Immediately after The Beatles broke up, John Lennon gave an interview saying that if he’d had to do over again he’d just as well have been “a [expletive deleted] fisherman.” In my own memoir, I wrote that I would have been “a [same Lennon expletive] physicist” given another opportunity. Alas, Mr. Lennon had the talent to fish and I had no talent with math, so as for myself, as the late great Oliver Reed says in the film “Gladiator” to the actor who would soon play John Nash, I say: “Me? I’m just an entertainer.” ◉