ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE: BEST PICTURE
British mathematician Alan Turing breaks the Nazi Enigma code and saves his country, only to be driven to suicide following a criminal conviction for homosexuality. Based on a true story. [Dir: Morton Tyldum/ Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode/ 114 min/ Drama, Biography/ Creator-as-hero, Sexual liberty]
It would be hard to imagine someone more deserving of a biopic than unsung hero Alan Turing, so it’s nice that Hollywood finally got around to it. Turing is widely credited for being an early pioneer in–some would even say inventor of–computer science and artificial intelligence, but perhaps less well-known is his key role in saving the world from fascism. That part of his story is told here.
During WWII, Nazi military units communicated via a nearly unbreakable machine-generated code (Enigma) that was altered daily; that gave code breakers at most 24 hours to decipher it before it changed entirely, an impossible task for a human, even the best and brightest. It was the Polish Cipher Bureau that originally reverse-engineered a device to decipher the Enigma code. But when a newer more advanced version of Enigma was released, the Polish deciphering machines no longer worked and meanwhile the political situation in Poland was deteriorating; so the Poles passed on what they knew about Enigma to the British. The newer Enigma was more complicated and needed a more advanced approach. It was Turing who came up with a deciphering machine that was faster and more effective, and in the end carried the ball across the finish line.
The details of how Turing built his machine are only lightly touched upon here, but you do see the trial and error, the steely independence it took for him to fight on despite the skepticism of others, the crushing frustration of relentless initial failures while German bombs dropped all around…and then finally glorious success. Churchill later said that Turing had made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory. It has been estimated that breaking the German code shortened the war by two to four years, saving millions.
So why have we heard so little about him? Because for decades after the war his work had to be kept secret. The concept of a machine that could think was so advanced, British authorities were concerned unfriendly powers would use it against the free world. To his further credit, while all around him war stories were told and heroes regaled, Turing kept that secret, appearing as just an old, eccentric mathematician of modest importance. It’s a pity that those who later arrested Turing for homosexuality did not know whose life they were about to destroy. That part of his life, though not the main focus, frames the overall story. The result of his arrest was public humiliation followed by forced injections of estrogen, an experimental treatment of the time for “curing” homosexuality that disfigured him. He eventually committed suicide.
Benedict Cumberbatch was made for the role of an eccentric and plays it here to the hilt, though more as an autistic loner scientist than as the real Turing, who is said to have been warm and funny, not socially awkward and arrogant. While the supporting cast is admirable enough, for the most part you forget them in Cumberbatch’s engaging presence. One exception is an actor you’ve probably never heard of but likely will one day, Alex Lawther, who plays the young Alan Turing with memorable subtly. My only criticism of the film is that it feels at times heavy-handed. For instance, the catchphrase “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” is repeated at least three times in the film–yes, yes, we get it. But the story itself and Cumberbatch’s performance are strong enough to let that pass.
This film has both solid creator-as-hero and social tolerance themes and as such will be of interest to libertarians. Life was very unfair to Alan Turing. It’s a little piece of overdue justice that his story was finally given this admirable telling.
External Reviews of The Imitation Game
“Justifiably considered a lock for a Best Picture nomination, The Imitation Game effectively frames the triumphant and tragic life of the man considered the father of modern computing with Turing’s 1952 arrest for ‘indecency,’ followed by chemical castration and his suicide…”
–New York Post
“Perhaps like no other single person, Alan Turing helped win the second World War…Benedict Cumberbatch plays ‘odd fish’ Turing, so convincingly that you forget that you’re looking at Sherlock Holmes or Star Trek’s Khan. What comes across is a socially inept, unlikely hero with a brilliant mind and a tortured soul—and one who was gay in a time when homosexuality in Britain was illegal.”
“The Imitation Game does justice to a great British hero and a story of incredible triumph against impossible odds.”
How to See It
Films With Related Themes
Book: Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film “The Imitation Game”
Book: The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing’s Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine
Book: Alan Turing: His Work and Impact
Book: The Essential Turing: Seminal Writings in Computing, Logic, Philosophy, Artificial Intelligence, and Artificial Life plus The Secrets of Enigma
Book: The Bletchley Park Enigma: 200+ Facts on the Story of Alan Turing That Inspired the Smash Hit Movie The Imitation Game Starring Benedict Cumberbatch
DVD: Breaking the Code: The Work of Alan Turing. Producer’s Cut . Princeton Turing Centennial 2012