Containment Culture in “A Beautiful Mind”

Since September 11th 2001, containment rhetoric has experienced a revival in American popular culture and entertainment. One such example is the biographical drama A Beautiful Mind, based on the life of American Nobel laureate John Nash and released on December 21st 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks. The depiction of Nash’s “paranoid schizophrenia” exemplifies the Cold War rhetoric’s theme of paranoia, a natural consequence of the nuclear threat, the ideological battle, and the secrecy of the era. I will focus this post on a specific scene, in which Nash is recruited to work for the U.S. Department of Defense by William Parcher. Link to the clip.

In the scene set in the Pentagon, Parcher assigns Nash the role of breaking Soviet codes hidden in newspapers and magazines, which are used to communicate to undercover agents. A radium diode used to indicate access codes is then implanted into Nash’s arm and the scene ends with Nash asking “So what am I now – a spy?”

This clip illustrates containment rhetoric, as its setting (the Pentagon) references the permanent militarism in Cold War America. The comment about Soviet agents (“New Freedom”) evokes the binary logic of the time and the overarching theme is that of paranoia, spying, and the impending nuclear threat. Nash’s task of decrypting messages implies that the enemies have infiltrated the country. The strength of the American ‘hard power’ is indicated by the use of advanced science and technology – in this case, the radium diode.


It is interesting to note that this scene goes beyond the foreign policy notion of ‘containing’ the Soviet spies, but also hints at domestic ramifications of the containment ideology. Only men, most of them in uniform and all of them white and middle class, are present. These traditional gender roles illustrate the notion of ‘male heroism’, implying that men where the ones working on, and ultimately winning, the war. Further, during the entire movie, Nash is constantly reminded that he is an outsider because of his ambition and his intellect (“You are […] the best natural codebreaker”). During the anticommunist hysteria, any deviations from the norm were considered dangerous. As an outsider, his work for the Pentagon gave Nash a sense of purpose, which is comparable to the increase in the levels of trust in the government during the 1960s and after 9/11.

A Beautiful Mind serves as an example of the recent reemergence of containment rhetoric, as it depicts the paranoia, the militarism, and the domestic ramifications of the Cold War through the lens of John Nash’s life.


One thought on “Containment Culture in “A Beautiful Mind””

  1. Very nice choice and analysis. I think that the idea of paranoia is also conveyed through the mission Nash is given. There are codes and secret messages in any and every newspaper in the country, used to communicate to a large network of undercover Soviet spies. This scenario illustrates the ongoing fear of being spied on, but also the struggle for secret information and the underlying battle between American and Soviet secret services.
    Nash himself also illustrates the intellectual competition between the two blocks; both sides strive to showcase their intelligence and spiritual vitality. In addition, Nash’s disorder could symbolize the traumatizing effects of the Cold War ideology. Although at first Nash imagines only his roommate, he later comes to create this Cold War like scenario based on paranoia and fear.


  2. The points made in this post are very convincing. I recently watched “A Beautiful Mind” for the first time, and I never gave a second though to the prevalent Cold War themes throughout the movie. Nash’s paranoia is a microcosm of the paranoia of the general public during the Cold War, and I think his schizophrenia represents the illusions that Americans were seeing during the Cold War as well. The military aspect of the movie also fits well into the argument, and how people during the Cold War felt they were a part of something bigger than themselves, much like Nash when “working” for the CIA.


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