Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game” (2014)
One of a slew of historical films from the UK depicting hitherto unknown or unfamiliar aspects of Britain’s role in World War II against Nazi Germany, “The Imitation Game” is a fictionalised account of the renowned British computer scientist Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park in decoding the encryption and deciphering codes used by the Nazi enemies’ Enigma coding machines. The film’s narrative takes the form of flashback recounts made by Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) under arrest for indecency offences to a dumbfounded police detective (Rory Kinnear) after a mystery break-in at Turing’s home in 1951. In Turing’s retelling of his World War II work, the story flies back and forth between his teenage years at boarding school, during which time he suffers from severe bullying and develops an intense friendship with another boy, and his efforts in building a machine that will decipher Nazi German messages under various pressures exerted by his initially uncooperative work colleagues led by Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), his superior Commander Alasdair Denniston (Charles Dance) and above all, time itself, as the Germans continue their sweep across Europe, capturing Paris and several other European capitals, and threaten the security of Britain itself with bombing raids and strikes against shipping in the North Atlantic.
A significant criticism of the film can be made in the way characters and the overall story narrative were changed so as to conform to a simplistic Hollywood story of lone outsider with Asperger-like geek tendencies fighting against an unsympathetic bureaucracy and disbelieving colleagues to fulfill his life’s dream and in the process become a hero. In real life Turing was very friendly and enjoyed good working relationships with others; likewise other characters in the film who are portrayed in stereotyped ways – Denniston as unsympathetic and rigid authority figure comes to mind – were nothing of the sort in real life. Also the film’s plot casts Turing and his colleagues as being solely and heroically responsible for cracking the Enigma machine’s codes when in fact thousands of people (80% of whom were women) from all walks of life – mathematicians, chess players and historians alike, thanks to Denniston’s recruitment efforts – were involved in the code-breaking efforts. In such an environment, the chances that Turing would meet and work with someone like John Cairncross, who was secretly working for the Soviets, were close to being so small as to be infinitesimal. A subtle and quite unnecessary subtext that demonises Russia is present.
In this unrealistic narrative also, an unnecessary plot crisis is invented when, having cracked the Engima machine’s codes and read its recent messages, Turing and his team (which includes one woman, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley) discover a convoy of British ships carrying 500 civilians and a navy sailor brother of one of Turing’s colleagues is about to be attacked by German U-boats in the next 30 minutes. The young colleague understandably wants to save his brother’s life … but to do so by phoning Downing Street, who would then order an attack on the U-boats, risks publicising the British discovery of the Germans’ encryption codes to the Germans themselves. The Germans would then resort to using new codes which would force the British to try to decipher the new codes after years of trying to decipher the current codes. This version of the classic trolley-bus dilemma (should one sacrifice one person so that five others end up being killed, or should one save that person but allow those five to die?) is so contrived that audiences can see it in advance before the young man even tells Turing about his brother. Of course, the answer, given the constricting social and political circumstances, is obvious and in the reality of the time, the young man would accept that his brother, in joining the navy and swearing his oath of loyalty, had already made his choice … but in the world of mainstream British historical film-making, Hollywood dictates rule that Turing alone makes the decision and in doing so, becomes a bit less human in the short term – and perhaps more corruptible as a result – if more heroic in the long term. From this moment on, one senses that Turing’s life trajectory must take a downward turn in the fantasy-land that is current Western mainstream cinema.
The film does very little to follow Turing’s post-war activities except to highlight his arrest for gross indecency (for having engaged in homosexual activity with another, much younger man) and to paint him as something of a pathetic figure forced to undergo chemical castration whose side effects undermine his intellectual work. A definite subtext that protests any action seen as discriminatory towards LGBTI people and impinges on their freedom of sexual expression, whether such action is intended or not, seems to be at work here. The reality is that Turing voluntarily accepted to undergo hormonal treatment to avoid imprisonment which would have affected his future employment and work prospects. The only person who would know if the hormonal treatment had affected his intellectual activities would be Turing himself – his work after Bletchley Park and during his last few years would suggest that the injections had few side effects on his output (though they did feminise his body somewhat). The end titles which state that Turing committed suicide contain a suggestion that his final years were tragic but his mystery death from cyanide poisoning has never really been adequately solved. Given that he had a small laboratory set up in his home and that he was a bit careless with the way he stored dangerous laboratory chemicals, there is a possibility that his death was more accidental than deliberate.
The film’s chief assets are its lead actor Cumberbatch in the pivotal role of Turing and the cast assembled around him. The film is easy enough to follow though it is uncritical of the Second World War and the way in which it was fought. The film’s release during a period in which the UK is pumping out historical dramas set between World Wars I and II for cinema and TV release, at the same time that the US and its allies including the United Kingdom are ratcheting up a new Cold War against Russia and use the crisis in post-Yanukovych / EuroMaidan Ukraine to conduct a proxy war against Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation leaves this reviewer feeling uncomfortable about “The Imitation Game” being another cog in a propaganda storm aimed at softening up the public in the West for more global conflict.
In all, if readers of this blog want to know more about Alan Turing, they’d be better off staying away from the cinema and reading this article by Christian Caryl for the New York Review of Books that all but pulverises the movie for turning Turing into a one-dimensional totem.