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.