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.

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