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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Imitation Game movie review: decoding Alan Turing

The Imitation Game green light

A marvelous combination of thrilling intellectual adventure and sensitive portrait of a man ahead of his time both personally and professionally.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Benedict Cumberbatch, fascinated by Alan Turing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Here’s the thing about Alan Turing. It’s a pretty huge thing. He basically won World War II by breaking unbreakable German communication codes that allowed the Allies to eavesdrop on everything the Nazis were saying. (Winston Churchill himself said that Turing’s was the greatest single contribution to the war effort.) He shortened the war by several years and saved probably millions of lives in Europe, on both sides. For all practical purposes, he invented the computer. (Not to dismiss all the many people who contributed to the development of computing, but he, at least, built and programmed the first digital computer and made it do something really, really important: break that supposedly unbreakable code.) Turing, perhaps more than any other individual, is responsible, along multiple vectors, for the way the world is today.

And as thanks for all that, the British government treated him like shit. Because he was gay.

*blood pressure rising*

To say that The Imitation Game is a fury-inducing experience is an understatement. Oh, the film, as a film, is marvelous, a combination of thrilling intellectual adventure and a sensitive and wholly engaging portrait of a man ahead of his time both personally and professionally. It’s the hypocrisy and the bigotry and the shortsightedness that the film depicts that is infuriating. And what the film implies is even more enraging.

If you didn’t know that Turing was gay, it’s not a spoiler for me to reveal this to you now. (Though why something so basic and fundamental to a person’s identity might be considered spoileriffic is part of our ongoing cultural homophobia that we haven’t quite gotten over yet even today. As is the fact that this information about Turing, and that the film is entirely sympathetic to him, might turn off some potential audiences.) The film opens in the early 1950s, when Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Fifth Estate) is being interrogated by a policeman (Rory Kinnear: Cuban Fury, Skyfall) after an arrest for “indecency.” The reason for the interrogation goes a bit beyond merely something Turing had done with his naughty bits, and ends up requiring that he tell the cop what he did during the war. What he really did, which remained an official secret until into the 1970s; some of his work has only been declassified in the 21st century.

And so the bulk of the film consists of flashbacks to Turing’s tenure at Bletchley Park, the U.K. codebreaking facility during WWII, where he clashed with almost all the other men he was assigned to work with. Pretty much the only colleague he does get along with initially is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley: Laggies, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), and likely because they are the odd people out. Turing’s homosexuality was a secret, but he was quite obviously what we today would deem Asperger’s with a side of OCD, but even his odd behavior might have been cope-able if he weren’t also so damn outspoken with his arrogant superiority. (There’s a lot of Sherlock in Cumberbatch’s Turing, and obviously the actor is very good at being simultaneously somehow both charming and exasperating. But it will be nice to see him play a different sort of character eventually.) And Joan was, well, a woman, and lady mathematicians and cryptographers were simply not a thing (even though, clearly, they were).

There’s a bit of flashbacky stuff, too, to teenaged Turing’s (Alex Lawther) school relationship with a fellow student (Jack Bannon: Fury) that was plainly emotionally passionate if physically chaste. But mostly this is all about one of the most brainily exciting things maybe ever: cracking the German Enigma code machine. Director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) finds a lot of genuine suspense and more than a bit of wit in guys (and gal) scribbling on paper and arguing about puzzles, and in Turing futzing with his machine — it’s not yet called a computer — with all its fiddly knobs and dials. Seriously, the hair on my arms stood up in the scene which all those whirling dials stopped amidst their calculations, indicating that it had — maybe — broken the code.

Turing explains to the cop about his “imitation game” — what we call today the Turing Test, which is about whether a computer can convince you it’s a human being and not merely programmed to ape one — implying that maybe Turing himself might be mistaken for a computer. And of course this is based on a book the title of which implies that Turing was the actual enigma. But he isn’t. He was brilliant, he was complicated, he was a pain in the ass, but he was completely recognizably human, and there’s nothing in this film — hooray! — that suggests otherwise. Which ties in beautifully with the key realization that helps Turing and his team in their codebreaking: it has to do with how the Germans who are creating their messages for encoding are human beings, too, with their own irrational habits and arrogances. (And that was a moment, when Turing is struck by the human thing that will enable them to break the code, of electrified arm hair, too.)

What I’m saying is this: The Imitation Game is like a historical science fiction movie — it certainly would have seemed like science fiction to anyone at the time, even though it was true — that never forgets that it is people, with all their flaws and quirks and stubborn humanity, who are doing the science.

But that isn’t always a good thing.

So, back to the film’s unspoken implication. How Turing was punished in the 1950s for his “indecency” resulted in his work being cut short, when he was still a young man. Even if we want to have no sympathy whatsoever for Turing and his personal life (though I have no sympathy for anyone who feels that way), it’s easy to see, from a selfish perspective, that we cannot even calculate what we lost as a society when we decided that the likes of Alan Turing were “indecent,” and that his work was not worth nurturing. Would we have had desktop computers in the 60s and AI in the 80s and some other wonder only he could have conceived of today? We’ll never know. And we should be ashamed of that.


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Imitation Game for its representation of girls and women.


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The Imitation Game (2014)
US/Can release: Nov 28 2014
UK/Ire release: Nov 14 2014

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate sex references)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Kathy_A

    Have you seen Cumberbatch playing the young Stephen Hawking? I saw it on the Science Channel (it’s also on YouTube), and he was just excellent in the role. It’s another brainy-and-knows-it role, but he’s also soooo vulnerable as well.

  • Ed

    I don’t think it’s right to say Turing was persecuted by the British government. I don’t think you can blame the police or the courts either.
    No, the blame must lie with the parliament which passed the unjust law that he broke – and so ultimately with the electorate. Because I have little doubt that the majority of the population at the time supported that law and would have voted for it given the chance.

    This does make me wonder if there are laws or policies which currently enjoy widespread support which people will look back upon with horror and disgust 50 years from now.

  • No, I need to see that.

  • I’m sure there are.

  • RogerBW

    A relative by marriage recounted the tale of the academic staff at Manchester taking turns to play chess with Turing in the 1950s (he was very bad at it), largely because if they didn’t he would go home and sit in his horrible bedsit in the dark.

    Part of the problem was that, because the work he’d done was still classified, he was unable to give any advice to the team at Manchester that was re-inventing the electronic computer and making some of the same mistakes he had made.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    so ultimately with the electorate.

    I am often exasperated at how many people living in modern democracies want to blame “the Governement”, as if it were some mysterious, uncontrollable other, and not a direct reflection of the entire population.

    This does make me wonder if there are laws or policies which currently enjoy widespread support which people will look back upon with horror and disgust 50 years from now.

    It’s not a question of “if”. It’s a question of “which ones”.

  • Well, the government is (supposedly) charged with carrying out the will of the electorate, but we see how often it does not do that. It often picks and choses whom it will punish and which crimes (or in this case, “crime”) it will overlook. It wouldn’t have been fair to all the other poor saps who were charged under “indecency” laws, but someone could have stepped in and ensured that Turing was not punished as he was. If only for purely selfish reasons.

    Ultimately, it *is* all of us who are at fault, yes. But in this instance, the public did not know how much it owed to Turing. But someone(s) in a position to help him did.

  • Ed

    But punishing the great war hero and mathematical genius Turing for being gay isn’t a greater injustice than a similar sentence handed out to some other gay person who’s completely average and unremarkable.

    If you think – and it may well be true – that the public would want to punish the average person but not the war hero for commuting exactly the same act then that only makes it worse in my eyes. Not only in the wrong, but also deeply hypocritical about it.

  • Tonio Kruger

    A writer once argued that the most damnable thing about segregation was not the way the great Louis Armstrong was treated as a second-class citizen but rather that such treatment was given to anyone.

    I would like to think that is the argument you are attempting to make and it is a legitimate one.

    Then again I can’t but notice that Englishmen like Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt — who actually betrayed their country by spying for the Soviet Union — did not receive the same punishment as Turing. Of course, Burgess escaped punishment by defecting to the Soviet Union and Blunt allegedly drank himself to death after he was exposed in the late 1970s but still I can’t help sensing a dark irony there.

    As for equal treatment being given to war heroes, many blacks and Mexican-Americans who fought in World War II would have loved to have been given the same treatment as their fellow soldiers. But they weren’t. Especially on the home front.

    Indeed, one Mexican-American war hero was actually killed by a white club owner for demanding equal treatment after he had returned to the States. But that is a story for another day.

  • Tonio Kruger

    George Wallace initially campaigned for office on an anti-Klan platform only to be defeated. It was not until he started appealing to white racists that he got popular enough to win elections. And many Southern white politicos who campaigned in the same era faced the same dilemma. It was not until the 1970s that things began to change and even then it’s not like old-time politicos like Jesse Helms got replaced by the likes of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton overnight.

    Indeed, many politicians throughout history have faced the same dilemma. In order to change popular prejudices, you have to have political power. But in order to achieve political power, you have to appeal to popular prejudices. And of course, many politicos don’t even try to change prejudices, finding it easier to pander to them than to try and change them.

    I would like to think that times are changing but it could just be that the prejudices that modern-day politicos pander to have changed and I have not yet noticed.

  • And of course, now there’s a huge scandal happening in the UK regarding how powerful (white) men have been protecting one another in possibly vast pedophile rings. Having sex with children is, I believe, against the law, and yet somehow some people are protected. (Some Asian men have been convicted and are now in prison for grooming girls, though.)

  • Adam

    Excellent review sir! Bravo indeed.

  • LaSargenta

    Sir? ~_√

  • Danielm80

    At first I thought the comment was spam. Now I think it was written by Marcie from Peanuts.

  • I almost figure this for spam, but what’s the point of a spam comment without a spammy link in it?

    I think I just invented a new Internet koan…

  • RogerBW

    If a spammer is brutally murdered in his Floridian mansion, but nobody cares, has it truly happened?

  • Nathan C.

    At least the internet makes it harder for such “people” to hide, though they can communicate easier because of it.

    It has been brought to the Canadian news media’s attention that First Nations women have been “disappearing” near some of the more remote reserves, they are believed to be taken primarily while walking home from business in the city. The police has done little to investigate these kidnappings, some communities are fed up with what they describe as “an obviously corrupt” law enforcement.

  • adtvtx vafaeead

    I don’t think he single handed defeated the Germans. What happened to him was terrible but it doesn’t make me believe in same sex marriage. Just because Jeffery Dalmer ate people doesn’t mean all white people are cannabals. Just as this movie doesn’t mean that all gay people need more support. Tim Cook gay ceo of Apple is doing just fine.

  • CB

    The reason Turing’s treatment is more appalling than the typical application of those insane laws is not because it is, due to Turing’s status as war hero, a greater injustice. Because you’re right, it isn’t.

    The reason it is so appalling is because here is a nearly perfect case to try to open someone’s eyes as to what an injustice it is. Someone who thinks of the homosexual as nothing but a useless degenerate criminal pervert who deserves punishment, yet here is one who isn’t just not-a-useless-degenerate but a key architect of victory over the Nazis. How can that not give someone pause, and have them reflect on their prejudices and the outcomes of their “justice”?

    Yet, that’s exactly what didn’t happen. The eyes and minds remained as closed as ever. It shows more than how unjust the law was, it shows how locked and rigid the thinking of those who supported the law was, how beyond any potential for enlightenment. That’s why.

  • David

    There are two separate scandals that are ongoing about large scale sex abuse being covered up by the government. The first, concerned a pedophile ring that mostly targeted young boys and saw it’s height during the 70s and 80s and is only now being investigated. Over 2000 boys are believed to have been victimized.

    The second involves Muslim rape gangs that the police refused to investigate for fear of making the Muslim community look bad or being accused of bigotry. The Rotherham scandal in which over 1400 girls were raped with the collusion of the local police and social workers. That’s just the most prominent example; the actual numbers of victims across the UK is much higher. Muslim rape gangs and the police refusing to investigate them are a problem all over Europe.

    In both cases the police refused to take these situations seriously for political reasons.

  • David

    Of all things, this actually reminds me of what the Joker said to Batman in the Dark Knight, “To them you’re just a freak, like me. They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out like a leper.”

    One of Turing’s most enduring contributions might be the post WWII situation. The Soviet Union would have defeated Nazi Germany eventually no matter what, but without Turing the Western Allies may never have been able to land in France. This would have led to Hitler and the Nazi leadership continuing to flee west ward with the Red Army in pursuit until all of Europe would find itself under Soviet domination.

    On the other hand the US was developing the A-bomb which likely would have ended the war before 1946 no matter what happened elsewhere.

  • Lynn

    Yeah, I suppose it is entirey likely that if he had lived, his inventions could have been left on the classified shelf until the patents expired.

    It’s what happened to Heddy Lamar’s work in what eventually became WiFi.

  • Lynn

    There is actually an AI competition held in his name now. I remember watching one held in the 90s where a man was awarded the Most Lifelike AI award because he reacted entirely like a human, but had a memory for minutiae that led people to believe he must be an AI.

  • barrem01

    Burgess and Blunt were both gay.
    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/so-whats-new-about-gay-spies-1253692.html

    so perhaps chemical castration was a worry for them. But your point is well taken: the dehumanization of discrimination is no less a crime when the victim is an average person.

  • R_Rindt

    Does anyone else notice this peculiar similarity in our movies and television lately? I thought this movie was executed quite flawlessly, however one can’t not notice algorithmic quantifiable nuances in our world TODAY. That being said, even if you have absolutely no idea as to whatI am referring to, let me be exact and clear. We are moving into the year Two Thousand &16. Hilary Clinton is being payed for by the same people that fund Hollywood. DID THIS MOVIE MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE WOMEN WERE STRONGER THAN MEN? I think they are, but I’m not producing movies around reality to stear your thoughts through couersion.

  • Danielm80

    Welcome to the Flick Filosopher site. While you’re here, you might take a look at MaryAnn’s “Where are the Women?” project.

    http://www.flickfilosopher.com/2015/06/women-2015-ranking.html

    If you read through a few of the entries and still think that Hollywood is run by liberal feminists, then this may not be the website for you. Try this one instead:

    http://kathrynvercillo.hubpages.com/hub/What-People-Think-When-You-Type-in-All-Caps

  • LaSargenta

    Wait a sec’, you think H.C. is a Liberal Feminist? Feminist I’ll grant you, but Liberal…no.

  • Danielm80

    Wherever Hillary is on the political spectrum, there’s a good chance it will shift with the latest polling data.

  • Bluejay

    I wish that some anti-gay-marriage politicians WOULD shift their views based on the latest polling data.

    I like it when my elected leaders shift their views to be closer to my own. It’s when they shift their views AWAY from mine that I disapprove. ;-)

  • LaSargenta

    Especially if Bernie polls even better.

  • LaSargenta

    Actually, all elected leaders ARE supposed to represent their constituents. Problem is, they confuse who gives them money which whom they are constitutionally mandated to represent.

  • R_Rindt

    Obama has been able to ram more anti American agenda down our throats because he’s black. No one dare call him out on it either, out of fear for being labeled a racist! Feminism is being pushed to get women to stand up and vote for that horrible demon Hillary, mark my word’s, she WILL be the closer for the NWO if Democrats are stupid enough to fall for it. How come the first black president and female president has to suck so bad? Hell I would vote for a black women president if she was for the constitution and didn’t defend child rapest.

  • Danielm80

    Now that we’ve completely derailed the thread…I like this take on Bernie Sanders:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/14/opinion/bernie-sanders-can-take-heart-from-a-broadway-champ.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

  • Your nonsense is not welcome. Please cease commenting here.

  • R_Rindt

    I am sorry for making my comments political. It wasn’t my original intention and for that I am truly sorry. Please watch this interview of Hillary when she was a practicing. lawyer defending and laughing about getting a child rapest off.

    Watch “The Hillary Clinton Tapes” on YouTube
    https://youtu.be/e2f13f2awK4

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