An encoded life
The Imitation Game, historical drama, rated PG-13, Regal DeVargas, 3 chiles The Imitation Game is a very entertaining movie. It could have been a lot more than that.
Director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore have taken the engrossing story of Alan Turing, the British war hero, computer pioneer, and homosexual martyr, and fitted it into the familiar confines of a biopic stocked with Movie Moments, rather than freeing it (to paraphrase Fitzgerald) to romp like the mind of God.
The mind of God is relevant here because Turing was dealing in areas that seemed at the time to be beyond human solution. At the onset of World War II, the Germans were giving the Allies fits with their dispatches encoded on a cipher machine named Enigma. The codes were incredibly complex and were changed every 24 hours. Turing was charged by the British government to help crack the codes. And when at last his team succeeded, in order to keep the Nazis from knowing Enigma had been compromised, the command had to decide which information to act on and which to let go. Which lives to save and which to sacrifice. Playing God.
In The Imitation Game’s account, Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is put to work on the Enigma codes with a team already assembled at Bletchley Park, the topsecret facility in Buckinghamshire. With his arrogance he quickly alienates pretty much everyone involved, from the commanding officer to the math whizzes on the team. He’s shown as having a touch of Asperger’s syndrome — he doesn’t play nicely with others (a trait shared by Cumberbatch’s best-known character, British television’s Sherlock Holmes). But Turing’s skills were such that Winston Churchill himself intervened to insist that the young Cambridge genius be given every assistance, and that those around him suck it up and get along. (Churchill would later credit Turing with making the single greatest contribution to the Allied victory over the Nazis.)
The filmmakers have constructed Turing’s story in three time periods, which they shuffle back and forth. They begin near the end in 1952, with police investigating a burglary at Turing’s home and a detective (Rory Kinnear) nettled enough by Turing’s eccentric behavior to start probing his record. The fallout from this investigation will be the discovery of Turing’s homosexuality. In England at that time, engaging in homosexual activity was a criminal and severely punishable offense.
The film’s earliest time frame finds young Turing (Alex Lawther) in his boarding-school days, learning about cryptology and becoming infatuated with a fellow schoolboy (for whom, the movie fancifully has it, he will later nickname the protocomputer he built at Bletchley to crack the code). This section introduces the fortune-cookie mantra that will echo through the movie: “Sometimes it’s the very people no one imagines anything of that do things no one can imagine.”
The main event is the wartime assault on Enigma. Turing is interviewed at Bletchley by the officer in charge, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), who is so irritated by him he’s ready to throw him out on his ear — until, at the doorway, Turing makes one of those game-changing Movie Moment remarks that causes a character to stop in his tracks and mutter, “What did you say?”
The problem with these moments is that we don’t believe things happened that way. We’re getting a movie scene, not an insight. Another comes at the meeting of Turing and Joan Clarke, whose mathematical brilliance made her one of the rare woman cryptanalysts accepted into the Bletchley fraternity. They would become engaged briefly, despite Clarke’s knowledge and acceptance of his homosexuality. It was Turing who broke off the engagement, but they remained close friends till his death. Kiera Knightly does a smart, incisive job as Clarke, but her movie-star looks are a distraction.
All the acting is terrific, with special mention to Mark Strong as Stewart Menzies, wartime head of MI6, and Matthew Goode as one of Turing’s teammates. Cumberbatch plays the moody, brilliant, socially clueless, hopelessly arrogant scientist with a stuttering, mercurial doggedness that will land him on Oscar’s short list. Interestingly, the actor’s career breakthrough came in a 2004 television movie in which he portrayed Stephen Hawking, who happens to be the subject of this year’s other British scientist biopic, The Theory of Everything, a similarly movied-up evasion of the workings of a great mind.
Tyldum and Moore’s greatest offense may be the romanticized simplification with which they show Turing holed up alone and assembling his computer (which was actually called the Bombe) from scratch; the real project was infinitely more complex, with Turing and associates drawing on a Polish design. A scene in which an overheard comment at a bar lights the bulb for Turing will remind you of those old songwriter biopics where an offhand remark inspires a hit song. And the climactic success scene is thrilling, but it has a nagging familiarity.
Maybe there’s no way around that sort of thing. This is, after all a movie, and its mix of originality and boilerplate may be all we can reasonably expect from the biopic genre. It’s good fun. But with all that brilliance at the center of this story, it would have been even more thrilling if they could have found a way to crack the code for making these kinds of movies and transcend that enigma.
— Jonathan Richards
Focused group: Keira Knightly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Matthew Goode, and Allen Leech