When I teach university students, I often try to inspire them with tales of people who have changed the world with their brain. Alan Turing turned the tide of a war with his — Winston Churchill said he was the single person most responsible for the Allied victory in WWII. He built a device, a precursor to the modern computer, that could crack German communications encrypted with the Enigma machines. He’s also generally considered the father of computer science, and had no small part to play in the birth of the computer, an invention whose impact on society and culture can hardly be overstated. And yet during his short life, many of his greatest accomplishments were classified, and he was horrifically punished by the state for being gay.
I’ve been intrigued by Turing for some time, so when I heard there was a biopic being made about his codebreaking time at Bletchley Park, called THE IMITATION GAME, I was thrilled. And I can’t think of a person better suited to play Turing than Benedict Cumberbatch. Small segments of the film are set during the early 1950s, when Turing was being investigated for being a homosexual, but the core of the film details his time in the early 1940s, when he led a team of codebreakers in a daily race against the clock to crack German encryption. While he was a mathematical genius, socially Turing was a disaster — his abrasive and dismissive nature alienated coworkers like John Caircross (DOWNTON ABBEY’s Allen Leech), Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). He also struggled with finding enough resources to build his electromechanical machines, here personified by his conflicts with his superior, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance of GAME OF THRONES).
THE IMITATION GAME won the People’s Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival, making it the odds-on favorite for the Academy Award for Best Picture. That’s quite an accomplishment for director Morten Tyldum, considering this is his first English-language film. And THE IMITATION GAME is indeed an engaging and well-crafted crowd-pleaser, although for my money it does’t quite reach Best Picture territory. It certainly succeeds in building drama, no small feat for a subject whose outcome is known in advance. However, it does this by condensing, compressing, and slightly altering the complicated, real-world historical facts.
This “amping up” of reality was doubt a result of choices made by writer Graham Moore, while adapting the book by Andrew Hodges. For example, the German Enigma machine, and Turing’s codebraking electromechanical device, called a bombe (not to be confused with a ‘Turing machine’), are both here shown as singular machines, though in reality they came in an array of configurations. And hundreds of people worked at Bletchley Park, including many women hired as “computers.” But in the film we only focus on a small team, and all the women are represented by a single character. The codebreaking advances also didn’t happen exactly as portrayed in the film, but I won’t go into them for fear of giving away too much. The result is a compelling story, but one that ultimately just feels like a bag of screenwriting tricks only loosely based on reality. I always prefer films that take on the much more difficult task of presenting the true history more-or-less as it happened with as few shortcuts as possible.
Benedict Cumberbatch has built a career playing socially awkward geniuses (Sherlock, Assange, Khan). I work around a lot of people like this, and Cumberbatch is the master of haughty-but-endearing aloofness. What I find most impressive is that, despite the similarities, he’s been able to portray each character distinctively. Sherlock is off-putting partly because he doesn’t suffer fools and cannot understand why others cannot keep up with him. Assange has a toxic combination of single-minded ambition and arrogance. And Khan is just manipulative. In Turing he reveals a man separated from others by genius, but who is then further ostracized by a society that compels him to keep the most fundamental truths about him a secret.
In a medium where you are supposed to show instead of tell, it seems odd that we are really only told that Turing is gay, while a great deal of screen time is devoted to his engagement to a woman. It is true that we are told by many characters in many ways, and maybe it is simply the case that Turing’s gay relationships are less well documented. Still, I can’t help but think the filmmakers are erring a bit too much on trying to position the audience for mainstream success by keeping his real life partly in the cinematic closet.
Turing’s called his famous test for artificial intelligence “the imitation game.” Based on a series of interrogations, we are supposed to guess whether an entity is a person or computer. If we subject the film to the same kind of scrutiny, it would never fool anyone as a historical document. That’s fine — as a film it succeeds — it has consistent drama, excellent acting, and will raise interest in one of history’s most important and enigmatic figures.