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Math in the Movies: Revolutionary Road

This past week I watched Revolutionary Road, the Oscar nominated 2008 film directed by Sam Mendes. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as a highly dysfunctional couple named the Wheelers, who live in 1950s suburban Connecticut. For those of you who may not have seen this feel-good picture, here’s a trailer:

The trailer doesn’t address the question of what this film has to do with mathematics. The answer lies in the character of John Giving, a “mathematician” played in the film by Michael Shannon (who turned in an Oscar-nominated performance).

We first hear of John Giving from his mother, who informs Mrs. Wheeler that her son has a brilliant mind, as evidenced by his PhD in mathematics, but that he has been institutionalized, and his doctors have suggested that it would be good for him to go out and make some friends. This introduction did not bode well for the film’s representation of the mathematically inclined, but how did the rest turn out?

Let’s explore the usual stereotypes.

- To be good at math, you must be insane.

This is probably the most common stereotype in films about mathematicians, and this film would certainly have us initially believe that it is no different. To be fair, we’re never told that Dr. Givings was ever an especially gifted mathematician, but the first facts we learn about him is that he is a mathematician, and he is insane.

But is he really? He’s certainly outspoken, and doesn’t fit in with the established conformity that has become synonymous with 1950s American life, but we’re never given any clear indication as to whether he truly did or did not belong in an asylum. Indeed, the film seems to play on the convention of the insane mathematician – Dr. Givings is told by society that he is insane, but his outspoken attitude sometimes makes him seem like the only sane one in the film.

In fact, it’s not at all clear that he is even a mathematician – perhaps he has just been given this label by a mother who yearns to take pride in her son. When Frank Wheeler asks Givings about his background as a mathematician in the book on which the film was based, Givings asserts that he is not a mathematician. “Taught it for awhile, that’s all.”

I’ve decided to give the film a pass on this stereotype. Givings may be insane, but he certainly seems more lucid than anyone else living in the suburbs. +0.

- People who are good at math are socially awkward.

Givings is awkward, but not in the way one would expect in a portrayal of a mathematician. Instead of being nervous in social situations, he seems to relish them, and is quite outspoken in his opinions. The awkwardness therefore stems from his seeming inability to keep his mouth shut.

He does create awkward situations, but not in the way you’d expect given the stereotypes about mathematicians. So I’ll give this one a pass as well.

One of two scenes featuring John Givings.

Related to the notion of social awkwardness is the idea that people who do well in math or science are not good at picking up on nonverbal cues. However, as the clip above illustrates, Givings is quite good at picking up on these cues – better than anyone else in the film, in fact. That he can observe these cues and still do mathematics is a good thing, although to be fair, Givings says that his mathematical abilities disappeared following his shock therapy treatments. +1.

Givings is certainly not your stereotypical mathematician. I worried that this film would play in to all of the stereotypes surrounding folks who do math, and so I was surprised to find that the film played with these stereotypes in a way that one doesn’t usually see. I prefer this performance to other Oscar nominated crazy mathematician roles, but I still long for the film that shows me a mathematician who’s just a normal dude (or, even better, dudette).

  • Smith

    I don't think you should give this a pass on the first stereotype of Givings being insane, because he's the most sane from our contemporary stand point. The film plays this into being a major character flaw, and leads the viewer into believing this is at least associated with his mathematical and/or academic brilliance. If anything, it will cause people to believe that those with a mathematics PhD will be one of two extremes of insane: Quiet awkward, Outlandish awkward. Which are you?

  • Matt

    I actually found Givings to be the least flawed character of the bunch – granted everyone's lives seemed cripplingly depressing, so this isn't saying much. I'm sure they could've played with this notion of insanity without giving him a math background, but I don't think the film does much of a disservice to the stereotype, especially as compared to other films. I found Givings to be the most likable character in the film, but maybe that's my own bias. I guess they could've made him a crazy physicist instead.

    as for your second question, outlandish awkward, no doubt!