Turing’s tests: ‘The Imitation Game’ is a superior but tragic biopic about a brilliant but lonely intellectual

December 31, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 31, 2014

What makes life worth living? Why should society — why should anyone — value a man’s existence and accomplishments?

Those are some of the questions Norwegian director Morten Tyldum poses with his new feature, The Imitation Game, which examines the life and work of pioneering British computer scientist Alan Turing.

The movie has three interwoven narratives. The shortest, but arguably the most heart-wrenching, shows a roughly 15-year-old Turing at boarding school in the 1920s. Turing, played with touching vulnerability by Alex Lawther, is bullied mercilessly by his classmates — all but one, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon), who shows appreciation for Turing’s quirky personality as well as his impressive intellect.

The grown-up Turing whom we see throughout the rest of the movie is less vulnerable — at least superficially. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s ongoing 21st-century update of the character and Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness) portrays the main character as he first strives to crack Nazi German cryptography in World War II and then, in the early 1950s, tries to deflect the inquiries of an overenthusiastic Manchester detective who suspects Turing of spying for the Soviet Union. (To avoid spoilers, I’ll confine most of my commentary to the movie’s World War II narrative.)

The broad outlines of the movie conform to the history that I (vaguely) know: The brilliant Turing helped crack Germany’s Enigma communications code, thereby giving the Allies vital military intelligence. Turing also made formative contributions to the field of information science, thanks in no small part to the 1930s paper he wrote described a machine that today we would call a computer.

The adult Turing is an interesting mix of cockiness and insecurity. He’s confident enough in his mathematical ability that he wangles his way into a job interview at Bletchley Park and claims to represent Britain’s best hope of cracking Enigma. He’s (barely) humble enough to acknowledge, in his initial exchange with the crusty Cmdr. Denniston (Charles Dance), that his academic accomplishments to date are only just keeping par with the work that Newton and Einstein had produced by their mid-20s.

After sending Winston Churchill a message (never shared with the audience) that Britain’s prime minister finds extremely persuasive, Turing gains control of the Engima project from head Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode). Within seconds of assuming command, he fires two of his erstwhile colleagues, to the disgust of Alexander and company. Turing is obsessed with building and fine-tuning his prototypical computing device, insisting to Denniston, Alexander and everyone else that it’s the only way to crack Enigma.

Turing is greeted with skepticism from all quarters. Then he has the good fortune to recruit one Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a 20-something female math and science prodigy who aces the tests Turing puts her to. An unlikely friendship develops between these two brilliant people: Clarke, who negotiates social situations with ease, and the painfully awkward Turing, who struggles with the simplest of social niceties and who, Cumberbatch’s performance suggests, has a mild form of autism.

With Clarke’s guidance, Turing wins over his grudging team members (in a plot development that isn’t entirely convincing based on what we’re shown) and completes his machine. But Denniston has grown disgusted with Turing, whom he not only finds rude but suspects of being a Soviet spy. Even though the fledgling computer is operational, it has yet to render any useful intelligence, and Turing and team find themselves running out of time to produce results…

The Imitation Game sometimes treats its scenario with a strangely comic touch. While Turing’s awkward office politics are in fact somewhat amusing, it’s still odd to watch screenwriter Graham Moore, working from Andrew Hodges’s 1983 biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, make light of the scientist’s genuine pain and confusion in social situations.

Still, the movie tackles some serious issues, sketching the ethical conundrums created by the requirement that Bletchley Park’s code-breaking work be kept secret. Turing, Clarke, Alexander and the others appear to be deeply stricken when they realize that their breakthroughs won’t transform the task of war-fighting into child’s play.

On the third hand, the movie glosses over Turing’s homosexuality, which is crucial to the plot and is discussed but never depicted. To get a sense of the significance of Tyldum and Moore’s omission, imagine if 42, last year’s Jackie Robinson biopic, had never shown its subject dealing with racism.

I’ll forgive the filmmakers, however, because they succeed in making Turing’s life story seem genuinely tragic. While much of the discussion of code and computers struck me as rather facile, the scene in which the cryptographers realize the best way to crack the Enigma code is truly exciting. (I did think it odd that none of them had considered the specific language analysis trick that they employ, but hey, I’m willing to overlook this potential plot hole.)

On balance, The Imitation Game tells a poignant tale, one that most anyone of adult sensibility should be able to appreciate and enjoy.

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