So this is a rather solid film about Alan Turing, who, now that all the papers have been declassified, is known to have broken the code of the Enigma machine, used by the Nazis to send encrypted messages during WWII. Turing was homosexual, and there is a bit of controversy over the fact that we do not see him have sex or be sexually active in the film, although I feel that the film has an extremely sly way of making a very powerful statement about gay acceptance. Unfortunately, it seems that virtually every aspect of the film is untrue... making its "powerful gay statement" a fiction. But we'll come to that in due time.
We open in 1951 with Turing having been robbed. He tells the detectives that he needs no help, thank you, in a way that makes one of them, Nock, suspicious. Nock looks him up and finds that Turing’s war records are nonexistent, and has him brought in for questioning as a potential spy. This interrogation will serve as voice-over narration throughout the film, and comes back in and out periodically. Soon enough, we go back to 1931, where we find Turing being interviewed for a position at Bletchley radio center, a secret base for British intelligence operations. We find that Turing doesn’t get jokes, is insanely arrogant, has no social skills and considers himself the most brilliant living mathematician. They didn’t know it then, but today we would consider him autistic, and these clues are there to help us make that diagnosis. Anyway, he is hired, and put in a team with five other guys. We learn the specifics in order to understand the challenge: the Enigma encrypts messages in a different code every day, and there are 159 million-million-million combinations to be worked through, which would take a team their size 20 million years to work through… but, as mentioned, there’s a new code every day.
The others, led by Matthew Goode as Hugh, work through daily messages, while Turing sets to work on creating a machine, which he refuses to let anyone else help him with. After some blowback, he appeals directly to Churchill, and gets control of the entire project. His team members hate him, because he is an absolute cock to them. The movie treats all of this with humor, as we know what a genius he is and that he’ll start to show some sensitivity soon. Meanwhile, he brings in Keira Knightley as Joan, the only woman on the team, who helps him to start making friendly with the rest of the team, and eventually winning their loyalty. Gradually, his machine is built. It is to be a “digital computer” that can learn as it goes, and solve every puzzle every time.
Intercut with the story are flashbacks to Alan’s childhood, where he was bullied at school, and finally befriended by another boy, Christopher Marcom, who he develops an intense friendship with. It is Christopher who introduces him to codes, and they are soon passing notes back and forth in their private code. Soon we learn that the adult Turing has named his machine Christopher, after his friend. Joan’s influence gradually softens Turing up and he begins to befriend and work together with his colleagues. There is a threat of her being taken off the project, so Turing proposes marriage to Joan, which she accepts. He is agonized as to whether he should inform her that he is homosexual, and surprised when one of his co-workers knows that about him. He is advised not to tell her, not least because homosexuality was still illegal and punishable by jail [which it remained until the 1950s].
SPOILERS > > >
Soon it would hap that there is a spy in their midst, and Turning realizes that it’s the same one who advised him to keep his homosexuality secret. The spy threatens to expose Turing if he is exposed. Not long later, Turing is forced into further spying and government work, and in order to protect Joan, he has to break off from her. She is devastated, and they have a good scene in which she says she knew he is homosexual, but they have such an understanding of the mind that she thought their marriage would be a good one. Soon there is a eureka, run-to-the-machine-in-the-middle-of-the-night scene, when they realize what they need to make it work, and… it works! And they can thus begin translating all German messages they intercept.
After a poignant scene in which they realize that they can’t save too many British ships, or risk the Germans realizing that they’ve solved the enigma [made extra dramatic by having the brother of a team member on a ship they are leaving to be destroyed], the team is disbanded. We return to the fifties, where Turing is now exposed as homosexual by the cop’s investigation. Joan visits him at home, where he is a wreck, his house dirty and hands shaking. It turns out that he chose chemical castration over prison. He is building another machine, also named Christopher, in his home. We have a final flashback, in which Turing, having been on the cusp of finally expressing his love to Christopher, finds that he hasn’t returned to school, and soon learns that he has died. He was chronically ill, and never told Alan. We see Alan say goodnight to his machine, and the film ends with a title telling us that Turning killed himself after a year of the chemical treatments. It says that his machines were the first of what we now know as computers. Then it ends.
< < < SPOILERS END
So I was impressed with this film, and the smart little sleight-of-hand it does, which is to underplay Turing’s homosexuality in favor of his genius, then, right at the last minute, make a big statement about how we persecuted this genius—the man who brought us all our beloved personal computers!—just for being gay, that is, for nothing, and what a senseless tragedy for mankind! I didn’t mind the lack of any onscreen homosexuality because I felt like it was part of the setting up of this point, a very-powerful anti-discrimination statement.
The thing is, the entire film turns out to be so much bullshit. Like, COMPLETE AND UTTER BULLSHIT, beginning to end. I can take a little historical inaccuracy in by biopics, but this one is so wildly fictional that the entire film ends up feeling like a cruel betrayal. My information comes from a New York Review of Books review of two recent biographies [“Saving Alan Turing from His Friends,” by Christian Caryl, 2/5/2015 issue], that sadly I can’t share with you, as it’s subscribers-only. But you can discern wide discrepancies from the film in the Wiki article on Turing. The real Turing was eccentric, but “notably popular with children and thoroughly charming to anyone for whom he developed a fondness.” His friend describe his “sprightly sense of humor,” whereas he is unable to understand jokes in the film. He had a “chronic disregard for personal hygiene” as opposed to the dapper fellow in the film. He also himself reported the robbery for which is seen dismissing the police at the beginning of the film. But more importantly…
Turning was not working alone, away from his team. He was working collaboratively with numerous others. The military leadership of the park, portrayed as obtuse in the film, was actually quite versed in cryptology. Dennison, who the film portrays as a clueless clod ignorant of codebreaking, was actually a cryptologist with twenty years’ experience. Turing had earlier devices, not mentioned in the film, that were helping to decipher German army and air force codes from his earliest days at Bletchley. The entire park had 9,000 people processing thousands of intercepts per day—they weren’t helpless until Turing’s machine worked, as in the film. There is no evidence that Turning never encountered the spy, as he does in the movie.
And the kickers? The machines Turing built, called “bombes,” are nothing like “digital computers,” and did not solve the Enigma in one stroke. In the later years of the war, the British government built the “Colossus,” which is an early computer… but Turing played no part in its design or construction. There is no evidence that he named his machines after Christopher Marcom. It was a big point of contention that he wouldn’t breathe a word of his wartime activities to his own mother—a far cry from him blabbing it to the first police inspector to question him. And guess what else? Turing’s chemical castration ended a full year before his death—i.e. it was not the cause of it, as the movie suggests. Numerous friends describe Turing as happy and energetic in the days before his death, and he left no suicide note, and it is in question whether he committed suicide at all.
So… what to do with a movie like this? It’s a good movie, but it should be, as it’s almost entirely fictional. I guess we can say, for the movie itself, it’s very entertaining and moving and has good performances. However, it’s trying to make a pro-gay statement, but that statement is built entirely on lies! And that… completely invalidates the statement! Except where it is believed… by people ignorant of the truth. I don’t know, we’re getting into a kind of Kafka-land here.
Still, there is something to be said for the film, and that is it is the rare film to depict truly intelligent people, and to pay a lot of attention to the life of the mind, and show how those people can come to their identity and sense of self through their intelligence. Not that it’s a huge revelation, just that there are so few films depicting highly intelligent people at all. Anyway, if you want to see a pleasant fiction… see this film. Just keep in mind that there is almost no truth to the story it tells.
It’s an entertaining film, with good performances, even if all of it is untrue.