Sometimes a story about someone else’s life can significantly affect our own: teach important lessons , discourage, outrage, or inspire feats. And thanks to the cinema, each of us has the opportunity to get acquainted with such stories. Today we will talk about interesting films, the central characters of which are famous intellectuals – people who lived a phenomenal and stunning, terrifying and joyful life in all its endless complexity.
Sometimes no one believed in these geniuses, except for themselves, but, despite difficult circumstances, they managed to make breakthrough discoveries. Watching films about intellectuals is a great way to learn about the triumphs, tragedies and amazing features of people who changed the course of world history or … became its victims.
So, here is a list of 10 films about individuals with outstanding intelligence, which we advise you to watch.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch.
Benedict Cumberbatch played the man who managed to break the code of the Nazi Enigma cipher machine. And he played so convincingly that he received an Oscar statuette for this reincarnation.
The film is about the brilliant British mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing . He was directly involved in two of the greatest achievements of the 20th century: the end of World War II and the invention of the computer . But, despite the grandiose merits, Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality, underwent an inhuman chemical castration procedure, and eventually committed suicide, falling victim to the ignorance and primitiveness of society.
The Imitation Game tells how, at the start of World War II, a mathematical genius joined a select team of intellectuals tasked with deciphering the cryptographic system used by the Germans to transmit military messages. British intelligence had Enigma and even received daily Nazi messages in coded form, but could not decipher them.
Turing and his team defied the odds and, stubbornly resisting skeptical comments about the impossibility of cracking the German code, worked day and night with the sole purpose of saving human lives from the horrors of war. Thanks to an inquisitive mind , Turing managed to build a machine that defeated Enigma. At the end of the film, you want to stand up and shout: “Well done, Alan!”
The film tells a story that took place several decades ago, but contains many useful timeless messages. For example, about the importance of perseverance in achieving a goal and the fact that a person can bring good to the world regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Of course, the main message of The Imitation Game is this: hate is unnecessary baggage that each of us must get rid of immediately. We have to admit that the cast and crew did an excellent job of portraying these themes in a realistic way.
Howl / Howl (2010)
Starring: James Franco.
Have you read Allen Ginsberg? Not? Warmly recommended! Journalist and poet, father of the beatnik subculture, child of the psychedelic underground, revolutionary, “beautiful golden sunflower” Ginsberg was one of the most controversial artists of the 1960s. He became the hero of the film.
Ginsberg’s poetic works are full of expression and seem insane, apocalyptic, degenerate, chaotic and demonic. But definitely great. The poem “Scream” is a vivid confirmation of this. An anthem for the Beat generation and a turning point in the history of modern literature, it gave the film its title.
The film contains animation as unbridled as “Scream”, brief dramatizations of Ginsberg’s life, excerpts from an interview with the poet and, of course, a story about his landmark test – an obscenity trial.
Yes, the public, mired in stereotypes, condemned the Howl, which is not surprising. Conservativeness did not allow her to accept the work of Ginsberg, who wrote in a confessional manner about homosexual desires, metaphysical visions, attitudes towards politics and the search for personal liberation. As a result, the publisher of Voplya was sued. The prosecutor tried to prove that the book should be banned, but lost. The poem, the author and the publisher were acquitted.
To hear the “Scream” of the poet, watch the film of the same name. The intellectual rebel Ginsberg deserves your attention, because, as the eminent American writer William Carlos Williams said, Ginsberg “proves to us that, despite the most humiliating experiences that life can offer a person, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have wit , courage, faith, and the art of persevering” [ Williams WC, 2020 ].
Catch Me If You Can / Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio.
Mega-popular film director Steven Spielberg created Catch Me If You Can, inspired by real events from the life of a talented swindler Frank Abagnale Jr. Did you think that intellectual abilities can manifest themselves exclusively in the exact sciences or art ? Oh no! Abagnale is an example.
The film shows how the master of deceit, with a unique gift for delicate check forgery, managed to cash out more than two million dollars during the 1960s and 70s, and also successfully posed as a doctor, a lawyer for the Attorney General’s Office, a university professor and an airline pilot. An important nuance: Abagnale did all this as a young man! Isn’t it brilliant?
According to the stories of the swindler himself, he began to engage in fraud at the age of 15, and until the age of 21 he was hunted by the FBI. The film contains scenes of Abagnale’s daring escape right from under the noses of the servants of the law.
In order to finally assure you that the film is about an intellectual, we will say the following: Abagnale managed to deceive not only the FBI agents, but the whole world. As it turned out, the great schemer forged his own story! Journalist Alan Logan wrote about this in his book.
According to his investigation, Abagnale was actually pretending to be a pilot and cheating just to woo a female flight attendant named Paula Parks. And his story that at the age of 16-20 he was on the run, pursued by the FBI around the world, is completely fiction [ Lopez X., 2021 ].
Be that as it may, both the film and the story of Abagnale prove once again that the truth always comes out, despite all attempts to hide it. Leonardo DiCaprio did a great job as the underage impostor. Even if you are not a fan of his, after watching the film, you can be convinced of his undeniable talent.
Stephen Hawking Universe / The Theory of Everything (2014)
Starring: Eddie Redmayne.
And again, an Oscar-winning game. Again, this is an undeniable genius. This time around, the film is about the heartbreaking life story of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking . This man definitely deserves admiration not only for brilliant scientific discoveries and unorthodox views of the world, but also for the great strength of mind, thanks to which he overcame physical difficulties.
The plot that we see in the film covers 25 years of Hawking’s life: his studies in Cambridge, meeting with his future wife and the birth of children, diagnosis and progression of the disease, scientific discoveries, the breakdown of marriage. The picture is more focused on Hawking’s relationship with his wife Jane Wilde, who was not afraid to get married, knowing about her lover’s illness.
Hawking suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and gradually became disabled over the decades. Over time, he became completely paralyzed, with the exception of a muscle in his cheek, which he later used to control his speech synthesizer. The brain of a genius remained untouched by the disease.
Throughout the film, Hawking is shown to be brave , tenacious, charming, and witty. Jane, the woman behind the great genius, matches him in terms of resilience and inner strength. In the picture, she demonstrates exemplary devotion, acting as an example of decency, patience and diligence.
Playing Hawking, English actor Eddie Redmayne did an excellent job of portraying the gradual deterioration of a person’s physical condition. To do this, he carefully watched videos with Hawking, trying to recreate the subtle movements of his face, visited clinics for the treatment of motor neurone diseases, and also trained his muscles with a dance teacher in order to be able to spend hours in a curved position in a wheelchair.
Of course, Stephen Hawking’s Universe is inspiring. The picture is tastefully shot, it is fascinating and visually beautiful. In addition, the film carries a strong semantic load: it makes you think that our complaints about life are usually unfounded whining, and reminds you how important it is to appreciate what you have.
Hannah Arendt (2012)
Starring: Barbara Zukova.
1961 A high-ranking Nazi official and war criminal, one of the main organizers of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, is being tried in Jerusalem. The high-profile trial is covered by political theorist Hannah Arendt. Here is the plot of the film in its most concise form.
Hannah Arendt is undoubtedly one of the most prominent intellectuals of the 20th century. Reflecting boldly and provocatively on politics, ethics, and freedom, she was the first woman to receive a professorship at Princeton University. As a teacher, journalist, writer , she faced the biggest challenge of her distinguished career when she decided to publish 5 articles about the trial of the head of the “Jewish Section” of the SS, Eichmann. Arendt’s essays caused a storm of furious controversy.
The film masterfully uses archival footage of real court hearings in 1961, in which the viewer can see both judges and witnesses, and Eichmann himself, sitting in a bulletproof glass cockpit. Although genocide victims shared horrific memories of the Nazi death camps, describing Eichmann as an arrogant monster, Arendt took a different view of his motives .
From the film it is clear that she did not consider him a monster, but was struck by the mediocrity of this man, introducing the term “evil banality” into circulation. Arendt believed that Eichmann became a murderer not because of hatred for the Jewish people, but because of a fervent loyalty to the Nazi movement, which deprived him of the ability to think clearly about what atrocities he was committing. Such an interpretation aroused the strongest public indignation: insight and honesty made Arendt an outsider. Throughout the film, she looks thoughtfully at the ceiling and smokes meaningfully.
The culmination of the picture is the performance of a brave woman in front of students, in which she talks about the importance of critical thinking and the terrible consequences that thoughtless ideological fanaticism can lead to. It is this key message that “Hannah Arendt” contains.
Shine / Shine (1996)
Starring: Geoffrey Rush.
The hero of the film is the amazing Australian pianist David Helfgott, who is now 74 years old. The annotation to one of the maestro’s CDs says the following: “David Helfgott is a mystery, a mental unicorn, a whimsical angel with antennae reaching far into the Universe. His intellect operates on a completely separate wavelength, which picks up cosmic noises and vibrations” [ Danto A., 1997 ]. But, as a rule, the fate of geniuses is not at all like the life of rainbow unicorns. The biographical “Shine” again proves this.
As shown in the film, for most of his life, the fragile and infantile pianist was under the yoke of a despotic father – a Polish-Jewish immigrant who lost his entire family during the Holocaust and is obsessed with the idea of making a super-successful musician out of his prodigy son. “Always win,” he whispered to a child who had just lost a musical competition, “only the strong survive, the weak are crushed like insects.”
From early childhood, showing outstanding pianistic abilities, Helfgott won numerous competitions, and while studying at London College, he received the Dannreuther Prize for the best performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.
However, towards the end of his time at the college , Helfgott’s mental health deteriorated rapidly. He suffered a series of nervous breakdowns and spent the next few years in mental institutions. The film makes it clear that such problems were the result of Helfgott’s destructive relationship with his dictator father. But, despite this, fate gave him a second chance, bringing him together with a loving woman and returning the creative spark.
“Shine” is good in every sense: acting, storyline , cinematography are at a decent level. Viewers should stock up on handkerchiefs before watching, because there are many touching moments in this true story. For example, the scene where the pianist and his wife stand near the grave of their abusive parent.
A biopic about the ups and downs of David Helfgott confirms that each of us is able to be reborn to a happy life even after the most painful fall.
Dangerous Element / Radioactive (2019)
Starring: Rosamund Pike.
In the pantheon of great women scientists, Maria Sklodowska-Curie occupies a special place. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and one of only four people in history to receive the award twice. As you understand, the film “Dangerous Element” is about Marie Curie.
The picture tells about the attempts of a brave woman to gain recognition for personal scientific achievements, the side effect of which, unfortunately, she was not fully aware of. After watching the film, you will learn the history of the discovery of the chemical elements polonium and radium, as well as the fact that it was Curie who coined the term “radioactivity” and made a huge contribution to the search for methods of cancer treatment.
Despite numerous achievements, most of Curie’s life was overshadowed by tragedy: her beloved husband and research partner, Pierre, died at a young age. The film shows how, thanks to her indomitable spirit , she continued teaching and research, which eventually led to aplastic anemia and death due to prolonged exposure to radiation on the body.
Almost everyone knows Marie Curie’s name and has heard about the results of her work, but The Dangerous Element fills in the gaps in knowledge about her personal life and how she combined it with her professional achievements. Of course, as in any feature film based on a biography, some of the details of the outstanding scientist’s fate have been exaggerated or distorted for greater dramatic effect.
However, the picture deserves attention, because it tells about a strong, purposeful, passionate and uncompromising woman, burning with the desire to unravel the secrets of nature. The film not only inspires, but also leaves open the question: is it safe for humanity to know all the secrets of the universe?
Mind Games / A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Starring: Russell Crowe.
Have you ever heard psychiatrists applaud an actor for his masterful portrayal of a schizophrenic? But this really happened. Russell Crowe is the same virtuoso who managed to brilliantly portray the manners and some of the nuances of the behavior of a patient with schizophrenia.
In the film, Crowe plays the brilliant mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., the first person in the world to win both the Nobel Prize and the Abel Prize. Early in his career he made a revolutionary discovery and was on the cusp of international recognition, but soon found himself on the torturous path of self-discovery , battling schizophrenia for many years.
The film A Beautiful Mind is a timeline of John Nash’s life, starting from the moment he entered graduate school, where the first symptoms of the disease appeared. As the story progresses, the viewer becomes an eyewitness to the progression of schizophrenia. According to Nash himself, the picture to a greater extent demonstrates an artistic approach to his experience, giving an idea of mental illness, but inaccurately reflecting the nature of his delusions [ Clarke D., Kasolowsky R., 2015 ]. This statement is quite reasonable and here’s why.
As shown in A Beautiful Mind, Nash was convinced he was doing top-secret government work under the guidance of a mysterious US agent, who, of course, was a figment of his imagination, just like the Soviet spies. In reality, most schizophrenics do not experience visual hallucinations, they hear voices that they feel are formed out of thin air. Those who do have visual illusions tend to see things distorted, almost caricatured, but not realistic, as shown in the film.
In fact, John Nash was not a hostage to hallucinatory visions. But in A Beautiful Mind, they serve a purpose: to give viewers an idea of what it’s like to struggle with schizophrenia. Fight and win! The story of an outstanding mathematician is unique, because in the end he learned to ignore his paranoid delusions and returned to scientific activity.
The main idea of the film is this: people with schizophrenia are able to control their illness. Using willpower , the support of loved ones and special preparations, they can live happily and work fruitfully, not allowing the disease to consume them.
Vita and Virginia / Vita & Virginia (2018)
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki.
The historical drama “Vita and Virginia” tells the story of the love relationship of two brilliant intellectuals of the 20th century – writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. The film allows the viewer to plunge into their passionate romance, which was not a secret, despite the fact that both literary divas were married. The picture once again proves that people with a different spectrum of sexuality have always existed. Screening of such stories is important for adequate perception of queers (sexual minorities) and understanding of their contribution to culture.
A bright representative of the bohemia of that time, Vita is shown in the film as a brave and energetic girl, eager to get closer to the genius Wolfe. Gemma Arterton portrays Sackville-West as superficial, giving the impression that the obsession with Virginia is a desire to win another “trophy”. In fact, the women had a long-term relationship: although their romance was fleeting, the friendship between the writers lasted until Woolf’s suicide in 1941.
In the course of the film, the viewer can observe the peculiarities of Wolf’s mental state . When her windy lover leaves with her husband abroad, where she turns her attention to other women, Virginia falls into a depression with bouts of manic excitement. The writers of the film illustrated her mental suffering with the help of computer graphics: a flock of crows, growing ivy, ominously rising water perfectly depict the painful visions that tormented Wolfe.
The film is good and worth watching if only for aesthetic pleasure: Vita’s playful, androgynous and timeless costumes; fragile Virginia’s layered chiffon and velvet outfits; Vita’s mother’s intricate hats, as well as the set design, are truly amazing. In addition, the picture uses original vintage accessories that modern dandies can appreciate.
Pawn Sacrifice (2014)
Starring: Tobey Maguire.
As you might have guessed, the movie “Sacrificing a Pawn” is about chess . He describes a small part of the career of the eccentric grandmaster Bobby Fischer, namely the 1972 world championship match, most of the details of which are depicted in the picture accurately.
The film focuses on how Fischer’s childhood influenced the development of his rampant paranoia. The brilliant chess player grew up without a father, he was raised by his mother, an ardent communist with Russian-Jewish-Polish roots, who filled her son’s head with conspiracy theories . She was sure that their phone was tapped, and from a suspicious car parked near the house, they were followed by people from the government.
“Sacrificing a Pawn” shows how, as Fischer’s fame grew, so did his paranoia. He turned hotel rooms upside down in search of listening devices, claimed that his food was poisoned and was afraid to fly, believing that enemies could mine the plane. His psychosis was so severe that Fischer removed all of his dental fillings, through which, as it seemed to him, government surveillance was carried out. In the end, the grandmaster and his mother actually ended up under FBI surveillance.
At that time, there was a cold war between the USSR and the USA. This confrontation was also reflected in the 1972 chess duel, where the American (Bobby Fischer) and Soviet (Boris Spassky) grandmasters fought for the title of world champion. In the film, Fisher is portrayed as a “pawn”, a victim maneuvered by the American government in order to win a propaganda victory. Is this interpretation of the screenwriter correct? This question remains open.
In any case, the filmmakers invested a huge amount of time and effort into the study of the real facts of the life of the legendary chess player, and the picture turned out to be quite plausible. If you have two hours of free time and want to know a little more about the chess duel of the century, we wish you a pleasant viewing!