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The Imitation Game

I love movies like “The Imitation Game,” movies about the war behind the war, about brainy characters who have a major impact on military victories.  Maybe it’s because I’m brainy and wouldn’t make a very good soldier.  My grandfather’s major contribution to World War II was fixing radios so that Allied planes wouldn’t shoot down friendlies.  That’s no small thing.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, known these days as the father of computers and the Turing Test (which is the basis for another very good recent movie, “Ex Machina.”)  But Turing had one job in 1942, and that was to decipher the Nazi code-generating machine, nicknamed Enigma.  With Enigma, the Nazis could quickly and easily change their codes every day, and with 120 million million possibilities generated by a single machine, Allied codebreakers could not catch up in time to produce anything useful.

Turing is hired by the British secret service to figure out a way to break Enigma.  He uses a crossword puzzle test to recruit other brilliant codebreakers, and finds Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) that way. The two of them work on building a primitive computer, to the initial disgust of the other mathematicians on their team. It’s a long-term solution: they spend a lot of money and can produce no results for a long time, but when they’re almost shut down by superiors, the other mathematicians come to their rescue. This plan is outlandish and impractical, but it’s the only plan with any chance of working.

Cumberbatch’s performance is the heart and soul of this movie, and covers over a multitude of sins.  As is popular these days, Cumberbatch lends Turing something akin to Aspberger’s Syndrome – he is socially awkward, terribly direct, unintentionally rude, and struggles to understand facial expressions, sarcasm, and social cues. He’s also got an odd sort of speech impediment -a  tendency to stutter and then blurt his words all in a rush, almost like Tourette’s syndrome. All of this, it turns out, is fictional; Turing was quite social, enjoyed working alone but had no difficulty working with others, and had, according to his friends, a fine sense of humor. But Aspberger’s for whatever reason, has become the go-to way to portray genius lately in the movies (see Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in “The Social Network,” for instance.  Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have Asperger’s, either, but he’s really smart.) I’m generally not a fan of actors receiving awards for playing characters with mental difficulties, but Cumberbatch’s performance here really is award-worthy; he creates a character that is both lovable and cold, rude and endearing. He walks a fine line and never falls.

Without Cumberbatch’s performance anchoring it, this would be a mess of a film. “The Imitation Game” is the product of a first-time screenwriter and a first-time (in English) director, and it feels like it. There are blunders everywhere. The filmmakers don’t seem to know what a powerful and moving story they’ve got on their hands, and they keep doing things to try and improve it that only clutter and distract. We understand why code breaking matters; we do not need it spelled out to use with scenes involving submarines and fighter planes. We understand that Turing’s prep school relationship was formative; it’s not necessary to name the machine he builds after his first companion.  And what is a powerful line the first time is fine when it’s echoed once, later in the film, but by the third time, it’s gotten old.

Also, the ending plays so fast and loose with the facts to make its political point that it feels preachy and ham-fisted.  (see below the break for a closer look at this.) Across the board, a lighter touch would have made this a better film.  It makes me laugh to see that this won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay was nominated for Best Director.

But “The Imitation Game” overcomes all of its issues, and is a moving, and absorbing film.  I’ve seen directors save weak performances — that’s pretty common, but I always think of Natalie Portman’s performance in “Black Swan,” which was saved from disaster by Darren Aronofsky’s clever editing.  This is a case of an actor saving his director, and that’s much more rare.

Spoiler alert: I want to talk about the ending.  Stop reading right now if you haven’t yet seen the film. 


Alan Turing was a homosexual man in a time and place where that was illegal.  That must have been a very difficult life. He was treated terribly the the country he helped to save, and certainly deserved the apology British PM Gordon Brown issued in 2009 (55 years after his death.)  But “The Imitation Game,” in its clumsy attempt to show how badly he was treated, goes too far.  The film never outright states, but certainly implies, that the hormone therapy treatment Turing was forced to undergo in 1952 (after being arrested for indecency) made it so he couldn’t work, or even think straight, and because of that, he committed suicide in 1954.  That’s just not true. The British government treated him, and other gay men like him, terribly, but they weren’t responsible for his suicide. Turing continued to do innovative work while on the hormone treatment – some of it, in mathematical biology, directly inspired by the treatment.  And his death occurred a full year after the hormone treatment had ended.  On top of that, many people question whether it was even a suicide. His family reported that he was in good spirits even the day before his death. Turing died from cyanide poisoning, and he was working at the time on a gold-plating technique that involved cyanide. It might just have been an accident.

The film wants to make a point about the way gay men were treated by the British government and society in the 1950s.  But playing so fast and loose with the facts only undermines it, and makes the filmmakers look dishonest and clumsy.  And that’s too bad, because it was a point worth making.


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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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