The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in The Avengers for math nerds. As Alan Turing, he assembles a crack team called Hut 8 who will secretly try to break the unbreakable German code machine, Enigma, to win the war, while pretending to be regular schmos putting in time at a radio factory.game

Turns out, pretending to be regular is probably the bigger of the challenges for Turing. He’s a genius, but he’s also probably autistic. He’s horrid with people, often laughably so in the film (Cumberbatch portrays him lovingly, with sensitivity, grace in his gracelessness, and touches of clueless humour). Turing is also gay, and closeted, necessarily. Churchill credited him with the single largest contribution by an individual to the war effort; his work probably shortened the second world war by at least two years. He was an expert in his field, the father of computer science, and a war hero and yet he struggled just to make a friend.

The film flips between different time periods: his boyhood at school where he had his first love, a post-war break-in of his home that leads to him being interrogated by police, and the time he spent at Bletchley Park deciphering Nazi codes. Both book-ending periods paint us, the audience, a picture of the things he’s keeping secret. The film does an excellent job of presenting his world as a series of codes: as a boy he confesses that for him, conversation is a code. People are an enigma. The wallpaper in his home looks like morse code, dashes and dots. The production design is upscale period all the way.

For a movie about math and cryptology, it’s surprisingly gripping. Reels of news footage help give us a sense  of their urgency. They aren’t battling Germans, they’re fighting a clock. Their countrymen are dying in tunnels during air raids (as Keira Knightley already did, in Atonement), or simply wasting away of starvation. The movie isn’t 100% historically accurate, but I think it’s faithful to the time and place and people, and if the computer itself is given the Hollywood treatment, looking much more impressive than it ever did in real life, where’s the harm? Perhaps it will inspire people to go home and look it up.

I think the film’s strength is its moral question. Once the code is cracked, how and when can that information be used? How many civilialns and soldiers would you sacrifice to keep a secret that could win the war? The movie does a great job of personalizing the question and we start to feel that as awful and tense as it was in the not knowing, it was a lot more bearable than the responsibility we’re faced with when we do know. The weakness is in having painted Turing as the unblemished hero. The truth is , he was probably unknowable, and without ever having known him, I’m betting that no one could be as spotless as he’s implied to be in the film. Turing, the actual man, was mistreated by his ungrateful government, who kept his war records sealed while he was prosecuted for simply being a gay man at a time when it was illegal to be so (or at least to act on it – “gross indecency” they called it, hypocritically), and then sentenced him to chemical castration, robbing a nation, and the world, of a great mind.

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10 thoughts on “The Imitation Game

  1. seanathant

    I really enjoyed this movie and I thought Benedict Cumberbatch totally carried it. I liked how they played Turing’s social ineptness for laughs without being disrespectful. He talked about how a machine can’t be like a person because it works differently, and his mind worked differently than anyone else’s, there was a bit of robot in his responses, especially when he first starts working with the other cryptologists. I still think Eddie Redmayne’s Hawking was the best male performance I’ve seen this year but Cumberbatch almost matches it here and that’s a huge credit to him.

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  2. Jay Post author

    I did NOT enjoy the co-opting of Turing’s story on behalf of all wronged gay men everywhere. For me, those last cards really weakened the film. We didn’t need a “message” shoved down our throats. It was insulting, and to me, a blatant Oscar-baiting bid.

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  3. Jay Post author

    I DID enjoy the little clues scattered in the movie – at the beginning, he is seen picking up cyanide that has spilled during the robbery of his apartment. Turing died of cyanide poisoning. It is thought that he administered it by apple, and if I remember correctly, we see him giving apples to his team because Keira Knightley told him presents were a nice gesture.
    However, there has always been some question whether he died by suicide at all, or whether the cyanide was just careless storage and accidental exposure.
    I guess we’ll never know the truth at this point, but I’m glad we do know some of the other truths that were covered up for many years.

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  4. Jay Post author

    The Queen recently gave him a royal pardon, which I find a bit insulting. He’s forgiven for being gay? I think he’s the only one who should be doing the pardonning, and I hope he’d drive a hard bargain.

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