The Imitation Game (US/UK: 2014): Turing tells tall tales about himself.

The Imitation Game is framed as a story relayed by Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) to a detective (Rory Kinnear) to prove that he is human. I guess that would explain why the events presented in the bio-pic stray so far from actual events. Thinking machines can do many things, but deception, self-aggrandizement, and distortion aren’t among them just yet. When machines can take facts and think to themselves, “you know it would make a better story if we reordered them and maybe introduced a tragic flaw” then we will know that our days are numbered. Based on that standard, we’re safe or a few more decades. We want machines to solve problems that are too complex for us to solve, not machines that can do things we’re perfectly efficient performing. We can take comfort in the fact that we can still beat machines when it comes to story telling. But I am not so smug in my comfort as to let screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum off the hook for this parody of the life of Alan Turing.

Ostensibly, The Imitation Game is about the life of Alan Turing, primarily focusing on his time during the war at Bletchly Park, attempting to decode Nazi naval communications. Specifically, he is part of a team designing a very early computer to break the famed Enigma Machine. The single-task computers for cryptography, known as bombes, were vital to the Allied war effort. In addition to a story about a bombe, the movie also covers Alan and his first love in boarding school, a boy named Christopher. The entire film is framed as a story set in 1951 during an investigation into Turing as a potential Soviet spy carried out by the Manchester Police after a break in into Turing’s house resulted in an arrest for sodomy. Flashbacks to the war and boarding school years are a response to a question put to Turing during the investigation about “what he did during the war.”

All narrative films about the lives of people are probably shams in some way shape or form. Lives just don’t readily present themselves as stories. I can usually excuse some “dramatic license” in bio-pics, but at some point in the Imitation Game I stopped trying to forgive because the creative team stopped trying to present a plausible character. I believe that point was when Alan Turning in the movie declares himself God, or Godlike, or Better than God and takes on the task of developing a model for determining which intelligence gathered from the codebreaking machine would be used and somehow the military and intelligence officials agreed to let him. But even before that time, I was amazed that it was Alan Turing who figured out that one could use crossword puzzles to recruit code-breakers and was the only person who understood the implications of his machine. It all doesn’t add up, and it shouldn’t add up, because it isn’t true.

Others have done the work of separating the truth from the fiction of the movie. You can find samples here, and here, and also here. I don’t have much to add to them. There is actually very little about sequencing and interpretation of events and the characters therein that doesn’t in some way stray from the facts in order to present a tale that Moore and Tyldum think would please the audience more. I don’t mind creative people trying to please me in general. I won’t fault them for that. But in a bio-pic, trying to please creates an ethical problem – or it should create one. In this case, the filmmakers seem to be trying to make a case that Alan Turing is the single most important code breaker, and by the end of the war, practically the commander of the Allied war effort. It would be laughable if I didn’t think they believed it.

This film may have worked if Moore and Tyldum had decided to just drop the pretense of historical representation and instead admitted that they were inventing a character – call him Calvin Furing – and set the story during some fictitious war effort. Calvin Furing could suffer from a disorder somewhere on the autism spectrum like the filmed version of Alan Turing does (and the actual Alan Turing didn’t) to create a semi-tragic tale of a genius, who has difficulty connecting with people, working on a project in which he finally connects with a team, only to have those connections broken by success of the project. That story, which is the one that resonates most in The Imitation Game, might have made a good film on its own. The heartbreaking moments of the film come from the realization that the people Alan Turing’s character bonds with most closely are always taken from him. He will always be alone and apart even when successful. But we would have to drop Alan Turning from the movie to make that work effectively. Alan Turing actually had friends, apparently, and wasn’t concerned about whether his peas and carrots touched in boarding school.

It is possible that we are completely asking the wrong questions when looking for historical accuracy. Since this story is one that the Turing character is telling about himself, it is possible that all of the factual inaccuracies are of the type that a human might make when asked about his war record, knowing that the record was classified and could’t be checked. Most of the movie then would be a story Alan Turing is making up about himself because he can, trying to pass his imitation game by telling a story in a way a machine couldn’t do, thereby reclaiming his humanity from an investigator who thinks his homosexuality makes him a monster.  Due to state secrecy classifications, Turing was never able to give his own account and perhaps the Imitation Game is just a mental exercise…a hypothetical conversation wondering what he would have said about himself in 1951 or later if he had lived past 41 and was able to talk about it publicly. That would be possible, but the ending certainly seems to try to make a case that the filmmakers are just presenting a straightforward story about a misunderstood man who was ruined by an investigation into his life and nothing more than that.

O.K. those ruminations aside – how was the film? Well, I found the script a little too tiring, with conversations between people ending in inspirational phrases. Cumberbatch is fine as usual, but honestly, the role was not much of a challenge. He needed to be difficult, arrogant and a little mad by the end. I liked Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, Turing’s fiance for a brief period of time. Again, Joan isn’t a career defining role for Knightly, but the scenes that she is in with Cumberbatch are much better than those without her. I found it believable that Turing would have been fond of her. I understood why he would think that marrying her would not only solve some problems for him but also that she would be a good lifelong companion.

The film is worth seeing if you aren’t all that concerned with the fact that you aren’t learning anything. As with all historical dramas, enjoy the show but remember to do your homework afterwards.

**1/2 of Five

IMDB: The Imitation Game


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