Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Imitation Game is a quality awards season movie with all the components one would expect -- polished performances, a class production, and an 'important' topic. Here the topic almost seems calculated to score points among Academy voters. The full story of mathematician Alan Turing's contribution to the British espionage effort in WW2 remained classified long after the man passed away. His once top-secret work included playing a major role in breaking the 'unbreakable' German code communicated through a machine called Enigma.
But that's just half the story. This national hero Alan Turing was also a gay man at a time when being gay in England was a prison offense. This makes him perfect subject matter for an Oscar-Track movie. To be crude, it's all covered in a joke from 1995's Hollywood satire Get Shorty, where John Travolta spots an Oscar-winning actor and says, "His best part was when he played the crippled gay guy who climbed Mt. Whitney." It's The Imitation Game's potent combo of hot-button subjects that makes it a top contender. Plus it's got a hot actor playing the math genius, Benedict Cumberbatch. People make fun of his name but they still like his playing of another genius, TV's Sherlock Holmes.
Graham Moore's screenplay jumps around through three time periods. In the late 1920s, young Alan Turing (Alex Lawther) is a brilliant grade school boy, given grief by his peers and hiding his attraction to another student. In 1951, several years after the major events of the film, a policeman (Rory Kinnear) detects something is amiss with Turing. Eager to uncover a Cold War spy, he lies to obtain Alan's security file, finds it empty, and inadvertently uncovers Alan's secret gay identity. The third and the main part of the story takes place in 1939, when MI6 Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) of the Bletchley Park research establishment recruits Alan (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help crack the German Enigma code. Turing is insulting and difficult to work with. When Denniston demands a team effort, Alan goes over his head and takes charge of the whole project, firing mathematicians he doesn't think are good enough and betting everything that his plan, which requires building an expensive machine, is the one course. Brilliant thinker Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) joins the team against bureaucratic prejudice against women, while the former team leader Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) eventually gives Alan his wholehearted support, which is essential because Denniston is constantly angling to shut the project down and throw Turing into the street. Alan's machine is a crude differential analyzer -- a computer -- that uses large electric switch-dials instead of micro-switches. It's not fast enough to churn through the millions of possible answers for each coded letter in an Enigma message -- until Alan comes up with a brilliant short cut.
The Imitation Game is fresh and entertaining. Cumberbatch's humorless whiz kid is amusingly literal-minded, the kid of guy who gave up at social skills at age 14, and rubs everyone the wrong way. He appears to relate to people through formulas. We can see how he'd be infuriating, but we also see that individuals with extraordinary skills often come with rough edges. Of course, Knightley's Joan helps us see that there's a warm human being inside there, as do the flashbacks to Alan as a troubled school kid. Alan and Joan become engaged, which is an excellent development, originality-wise: she's too conservative to live away from home, yet likes Alan so much that she's willing to have an unconventional marriage with him. On the other hand, it's typical of the movies that the romantic problems of a gay guy are explored through his relationship with a woman. The PG-13 film's one dirty joke is firmly heterosexual.
The most cursory search for articles on The Imitation Game reveals opinions stating that it is a factual story, but with most of the facts changed. Alan wasn't as antisocial or disliked as the movie implies. He had a strong sense of humor, which in the film becomes a character inconsistency. Everybody keeps calling him humorless, but in interviews and interrogations he often uses potent sarcasm and irony. Most of the film's conflicts are invented: Denniston was a champion of Turing's project, not a foe. Everybody pulled in the same direction. When Enigma was defeated, the team did not experience a moral-professional crisis about how its information would be put to use.
That last problem brings up the film's real weakness: its vision of WW2 espionage, code breaking, etc., is simplified to the point of distortion. The Imitation Game makes it look as if Alan did most everything himself, that it all happened in a cozy little breakfast club of geniuses, instead of spread across several facilities. We're told that Alan and some of his most important collaborators never actually met. One very good scene is when Turing goes to his boss Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) to report a spy in his midst. He finds out that his superior is aware of the situation and already three steps ahead of him. It's not that Turing is dumb, but that for reasons of security MI6 operations would be tightly compartmentalized. Another scene seems almost insulting. With Enigma cracked all of ninety seconds, Turing's team debates whether to inform the fleet about a threat to ships in the North Atlantic. Of course, this outside issue must be made 'personal', and sure enough, we learn that a team member's brother is serving on one of the ships in harm's way. Alan and Joan come up with the 'cold equation' response: if we suddenly demonstrate that we know everything the Germans are doing, they'll change their code, and all will be back to zero. The information the new machine decodes will have to be acted upon with great discretion. Not even the Prime Minister can know.
Well, that's an important point, but it would likely not be any of this team's business, unless they were reassigned to a unit specializing in formulating strategy based on information gleaned from the broken code. The idea that anyone in Alan's team would take it upon themselves to contact anybody outside their immediate unit, about most anything, is nonsense. Their 'moral quandary' is a dramatic construction. The technology changes but the principles remain the same. I read about this kind of secret espionage strategy in Rudyard Kipling, and its principles were nothing new back in the days of Julius Caesar. You have a spy in your midst, Horatio? Instead of executing him, why not feed him false information? That'll fool Napoleon.
This dumbing-down is commercially essential, I realize, even for an Oscar bait contender. The Imitation Game doesn't want to be a slow-motion chess game like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and it's decoding 'adventure' must also relate to the gay issue story element. That a great man was forced to endure an obscene chemical castration because of his sexual orientation is a worthy message at any time. To its credit, the film does not make Turing an assertive defender of his basic human rights. We're at least given an accurate impression of the intolerable situation under which gays lived.
The movie seems calculated to communicate to the average moviegoer that seems to know nothing about anything. Even with some excellent writing, basic facts are constantly restated, re-exposed in the dialogue: Enigma is unbreakable, breaking the code will win the war, every minute it isn't broken means more Allied soldiers are dying. By the end of the show, it feels as if we're supposed to believe that Alan's vital contribution was more important than the actual fighting. We also get breaks for montages that pop up like a teacher's PowerPoint presentation. Today's audience won't listen if you merely tell them that a big war is going on out there, which means that the producers must shell out for about two minutes' worth of computer generated imagery of bombers bombing and submarines submarine-ing. One image of a screen peppered with battered Royal Navy ships is so laughably simplified, it looks like a child's storybook illustration. Meanwhile, the movie doesn't as strongly emphasize the fact that Turing's Enigma work was also a vital step in the development of computers. He's often credited as the originator of the concept of "artificial intelligence."
So what the movie is saying is, it's remarkable what the code breakers did (very true), that the main code breaker was a fascinating guy in a tough job (true) and that it's terribly tragic that the man who
saved modern civilization deserved recognition for his great service would later be tried as a sex criminal (true and deplorable). To do this the film resorts to an awful lot of fictionalization and distortion to inject 'immediate dramatic conflict' where none should be needed. There's enough in the interpolated boyhood trauma and Cold War arrest material to make us reflect on Turing's fascinating personality. As Billy Wilder once said, paraphrased, the subtleties have been improved by making them obvious.
I'm sure that Andrew Hodges' source book is a fascinating read. I also recommend Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks. Marks is also something of an annoying genius, which comes through his writing. His job was to break lesser German codes and create codes to be used by Allied agents. When many of them were captured, Marks underwent profound mental and moral stress trying to ascertain whether his work was at fault. Interestingly, Marks tells us that the FIRST thing one does to crack a code is to exploit common words or phrases. The Imitation Game makes us think that Alan's brainstorm is a 'Eureka' moment, rather than the application of a known principle. Perhaps the original book would correct my impression.
The synopsis of Ian McEwan's unrelated 1980 play The Imitation Game uses the Turing character under another name. McEwan says his play is about the work situation of women at Bletchley Park, and what happens when a 'Joan' character becomes too interested in official secrets.
A noted 1960s movie about Brit code breaking
is Sebastian with Dirk Bogarde; I haven't seen it. The crossword puzzle quizzes borrowed for The Imitation Game were used to recruit hundreds of women to serve as a 'human computing bank' to break codes. 1
In addition to the capable Cumberbatch and Knightley, the film benefits from a fine supporting cast. Matthew Goode (Watchmen) is a nice contrast with the star and Charles Dance appropriately prickly as Denniston; Mark Strong's quiet and composed higher-up contrasts with him. Rory Kinnear (son of the great Roy Kinnear) does a great sketch of a detective eager to bust a spy, who finds he's only harmed a patriot. Some of these people are familiar from shows like Downton Abbey. Allen Leech makes his mark as a code team member, while the alluring Tuppence Middleton (some name!) plays a more adventurous friend of Joan, who figures in a pivotal scene. 2
The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay's Blu-ray + Ultraviolet of The Imitation Game is an attractive presentation of this big picture of 2014, which pulled down eight Oscar nominations spread across the major categories. As with most new movies the image is flawless. Alexander Desplat's music score is a big plus.
Director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore contribute a thoughtful commentary to the disc. A making-of featurette is included along with a selection of deleted scenes and some highlights from a Q&A session.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Imitation Game Blu-ray + Ultraviolet
Movie: Very Good
Audio: English, Spanish
Supplements: Commentary, featurette, Deleted scenes.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English, Spanish
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 23, 2015
1. So why does this dumbing-down of historical fact trouble me so much in this particular movie? Old war movies were rarely accurate about such things, even some supposedly truthful stories. The Great Escape is fairly faithful up to a point, and then stretches things quite a bit, and I don't complain about that. I guess it's because in 2015, for a film purporting to present historical truth at Oscar time, I expect more. The dramatic alterations aren't a problem, but the show radically distorts the code breaker's role in the overall intelligence strategy.
2. I know the event is reportedly true, but when a word clue suddenly inspires Alan as to how exponentially increase his computer's efficiency, I couldn't help but brain-zing to the insipid Independence Day, where the word 'virus' inspires a perfect plan to save the world from alien invaders.
On a serious note, one idea insufficiently communicated in The Imitation Game is that the secrecy of Bletchley Park must have blocked any potential effort to help Turing with his court case for indecency. The deal is like the one in Mission: Impossible: "If anything goes wrong, the office will disavow any knowledge of your mission." But through history The Crown has pardoned many pirates and crooks for the sake of political expediency, or just saving face. One would think that grateful MI6 people like Stewart Menzies would want to intercede on Alan's behalf. Was Alan abandoned because of hatred for gays? Because easily blackmailed gays were considered bad-news security risks? Or did MI6 make one of Alan Turing's own statistical calculations, weighing the worth of saving the mathematician against the risk to secrecy?
And lastly, if Turing tells all to the detective, isn't he breaking his own Official Secrets oath of silence about Bletchley and everything else? At the end of the interrogation, it looks to me as if the detective knows the whole truth. Say it ain't so. (Seriously, this is conjecture.)
3. An extra helpful note from Savant correspondent Tom Geigel, 3.24.15:
Hi, Glenn, I noticed your review of the new blu-ray of The Imitation Game in your posting today. I haven't seen the film, nor was I interested in the film's overall subject matter -- the code breaking part -- since it was covered to some extent in the very good 2001 film, Enigma directed by Michael Apted. The setting and its Nazi code breakers are actually a backdrop to a mystery involving one fictional member of Bletchley Park's personnel. This engrossing, historically informative film stars Kate Winslett, Jeremy Northam and Dougray Scott. Highly recommended if you haven't seen it; you may even like it more than The Imitation Game. Take care, Tom Giegel
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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