The Imitation Game

A pleasant fiction
★★★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
2014
Director: 
Morten Tyldum
Starring: 
Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear.
The Setup: 
Basically untrue film about Alan Turing and the decoding of the Enigma machine used in WWII.
Discussion: 

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.

Should you watch it: 

It’s an entertaining film, with good performances, even if all of it is untrue.

Comments

Hi Scott,

First of all, long time reader here and I'm really glad you've decided to keep the site going. It's one of the very few places I can go to where I know I'll be reading something honest and intelligent.

Anyhow, a few years ago, the BBC did a dramatisation of some aspects of Turing's life which you may or may not find more faithful to actual events. It was called "Britain's Greatest Codebreaker" and seems to be on Youtube. At the time I thought it was quite good and hopefully you'll find it an interesting counterpoint to this Hollywood version.

It seems to have gathered some very negative comments on IMDB which I can't understand but possibly those viewers thought they were going to get a different sort of film - Maybe I need to watch it again myself.

Thanks for your kind words and the recommendation... I'll look into it.
Do you mind if I make your "honest and intelligent" comment into a "readers Respond" quote on the home page? It's a very nice thing to say, thank you!

Of course you may, no problem there. I was originally a lot more effusive but edited it down as I thought it might have seemed a little OTT. It's one thing giving compliments to someone personally, but written down it can seem a bit much!

As a couple of examples of what I appreciate seeing here, firstly I thought your review of "The Babadook" was very good and thankfully steered me away from the film as I just know I would have been exasperated by the conclusion and would just have been angry at it. Okay, maybe not post-"Watchmen" angry, but annoyed nonetheless.

You were also one of the few people to comment on the amoral vacuity of "Man of Steel". Even though it's a Zack Snyder film and that was to be expected, I probably might have been tempted to watch it at some stage and I definitely know enough to steer clear of it now.

Now, I don't it want to sound like I'm using this site as a bad film detector (tm). "Predestination" sounds like a fascinating film and is on my watchlist now. The same with "The Congress". I also don't think I would have watched "Time After Time" if it hadn't been for your review. I'm a fan of Malcolm McDowell ("If..." is one of my facourite films) and I missed out on that one. There are loads of films here that I think I would have just passed over if it weren't for reading some of your insights here.

So basically, I try to read all your reviews and even somethng like "Stranger by the lake" (which I'd probably never have considered watching because of its genre) looks like a film I'd make time to see just because you've gone a bit deeper into the psychology behind it and revealed it as something more than what I would initially have though it was.

Quite honestly, I'd put you above Mark Kermode in my list of trusted reviewers.

Actually, just while I think of it, I'd be interested to know if you've ever seen Daft Punk's "Electroma"? Personally, I absolutely love it and even if you disagree, I think your comments on it would be very interesting.

Sorry, that was a lot more than I intended to write but I've had to drop a lot of film review sites over the years due to increasing numbers of clickbait articles or just decreasing quality or articles, so I guess it's just time to let you know that your work here is definitely appreciated. :-)

PS: You can always use the "Contact Me" link at the bottom of the page if you want to write just me...
Man of Steel... is worth watching, ultimately, but it is hard to deal with the billions of [offscreen] lives lost.
Okay, I'll look out for "If"...
Above Mark Kermode! That's high praise, thank you!!!
No, I've never heard of the Daft Punk film, I'll look into that, too...
Thanks for your comments, write me anytime!
Scott

... and keep up the good work. I hope you didn't mind me making those suggestions as I guess you don't get too much time to watch everything you want. I just brought them up in the hope that if you do get time to watch them that at least you won't feel like you wasted your time.

I know I "should" see this movie and a friend said it was "great" and "moving" but your review confirms my hesitance. Sometimes there's a movie that's a great lesson, but one that I've already heard or don't need. It seems that's what we've got here.

Apparently films about Enigma have some sort of jinx that prevent them from being very true to the real events. There was this other enigma film everyone seems to have completely forgotten, it was called simply "Enigma" and it featured Dougray Scott on the leading role. That one was even worse in the sense that, if I remember correctly, it didn't mention Turing's sexuality AT ALL, which adds further insult to poor Alan's Turing memory. Anyway I just wanted to tell you because I find it intriguing that this movie is NEVER mentioned nowadays and it wasn't released that long ago (around 2002, maybe?)

I saw that one back in the theaters! Interestingly... it doesn't have Alan Turing in it AT ALL! Possibly because his files were still classified... their recent declassification is why there are these movies and bio books coming out now.

I'm afraid Ihave to disagree, having seen that movie as well - in case you mean that one with Dougray Scott in the male lead...Well, I think that character, Tom Jericho, is actually a sanitized version of Turing. He is also said zo be involved in the creation of that machine/computer. and he has a vision of what it should ultimately be and accomplish that very much seems to be congruent with Turing's own. But they have also sanitized the character in that they have "de-gayed" him and given him a backstory of having had a nervous breakdown because of a girl he was involved in and couldn't get over with.
But ultimately, this version is based on a novel by Thomas Harris, so I bet (even not having read the novel) that we have to think him for a lot of that.

U-571, the submarine movie that invented a completely fictional mission and crew, and pretended like they personally won the Battle of the Atlantic.

The issue is that the screenwriters aren't all that familiar with the subjects, but instead of doing research they just cram a bunch of cliches together. Movie Turing is dapper because all gay people are fashion-concious and put-together. Movie Turing is a dick to his co-workers because all geniuses are arrogant jerks. Movie military is a bunch of nincompoops because all military people are anti-intellectual warmongering buffoons. And so on.