Movies that add up

“Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater,” Albert Einstein said.

It seems an odd quote for a physicist like Einstein; but, of course, Einstein is free of his struggles. He died on April 18, 1955.

In the coming weeks, students and professors will be crunching numbers on exams and calculating grades. The following movies all feature protagonists with their own arithmetical problems.

So when it feels like math has your number, it may be good to remember that quote.

21 Grams

Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a mathematician with an unhealthy heart. Despite surgical complications and stern warnings from doctors regarding his consumption of food and cigarettes, he refuses to change his life-threatening habits. By the end of the film, a dreadful mishap brings together Paul, a grieving mother who lost her children (Naomi Watts) and an ex-con who has found salvation in Christianity (Benicio Del Toro).

While the relativity of Einstein is clearly used in the execution of this film, 21 Grams does not rely on math alone. Human emotions in the face of tragedy are at the forefront here. Mathematical paradoxes are a distant second.


According to his friend and mentor Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis), Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) was published academically at age 16 and received a doctorate at age 20. While a genius, Max cannot deduce that which he acutely seeks: a unifying theory. Max approaches this problem using the stock market as his data set, and the mysterious number represented by pi as his hypothesis. During his enlightening examination, he is assaulted by Hasidic Jews, Corporate America and his own social inabilities. Judging from Max’s physical health as the movie progresses, it seems he’s on a quest to discover a secret of the universe that may destroy him.

This black-and-white film raises many issues about religion and science. Thanks to the film’s intentional subjectivity, the viewer is left with as many questions at the end of the movie as Max faces at the beginning. Due to Max’s inability to handle the social and religious parts of his life, the mathematics he has put so much faith in may potentially destroy him.

Stand and Deliver

Based on a true story, Stand and Deliver is about the inspiring teacher James Escalante (Edward James Olmos), whose mission is to turn criminal youth in an underprivileged neighborhood into top calculus students. In order to do this, Escalante adopts unconventional teaching methods in order to provide his students credit for college. By evoking his own Mexican-American cultural heritage, Escalante forms a bond with his students and instills in them the necessity of cultivating their intellects in order to succeed.

Even though this movie shows that the bureaucracy of public high school is not colorblind, it shows that math is. More relevant, however, is this movie’s inspiring tale of struggle in the face of overwhelming opposition. In Stand and Deliver, mathematics is merely a tool by which oppressed young people overcome the odds stacked against them.

Little Man Tate

Fred Tate (Adam Hann-Byrd) is a young genius whose main purpose in life is to have friends. When his single mother, Dede Tate (Jodie Foster), realizes Fred’s genius, she sends him to a special school, full of arrogant “gifted” children who aren’t as brilliant as young Fred. The arrogance and elitism of the special school affect Fred and Dede’s relationship for the worse. With respect to the savants of the world, this movie shows there are some things in life that transcend intellectual capability.

Little Man Tate is an exploration of the social difficulties that burden many savants and geniuses. Much like Pi, Stand and Deliver and 21 Grams, Little Man Tate shows that complex math is often much easier than the complexities of socialization.


Socialization – or lack thereof – is not what one’s life usually depends on. In The Cube, however, it is so. When seven strangers awake, they find themselves in a room with six exits. Each exit leads to other rooms, and every other room also has six exits. It comes to light that the victims are in a giant Rubik’s Cube loaded with deadly traps, and the only way out is the creative use of math.

But math is not the only thing they must use to escape alive. They must defeat their own fear, paranoia and growing insanity. While the mathematical instincts of the group may be strong, it would seem that math alone cannot set you free.