On Saturday, Cecilia dragged me out to see The Imitation Game: the story of Britain’s Enigma-code-cracking team in Hut 8, and, more broadly, of Alan Turing’s life. It was fairly good, as movies go, but days later, I’m left conflicted about it.
It’s effective, cinematically speaking. The storyline trips back and forth between Turing’s application to Bletchley Park, his schoolboy days at Sherborne School, and how a robbery at his house after the war led to him being arrested and tried for gross indecency, that is, for homosexual behavior. This braiding of events maintains the tension: will Alan get the job? Will he and his childhood friend Christopher carry on happily at Sherborne or will some disaster befall them? What will the interrogating policeman learn? Will the team indeed crack the Enigma…and, having done so, what will they do with it?
So that’s all very good, in its way. Benedict Cumberbatch, as always, presents us with a lonely eccentric academic who, despite being a bit of an arsehole, wins our sympathies. Turing’s represented as an extremely literal man who has difficulty parsing people and may be a touch autistic. This difficulty is neatly encapsulated in young Alan asking his friend Christopher at school: “How’s code-breaking different from people? No one says what they really mean.” Alex Lawther, who plays the young Turing, is very good at letting his eyes shine with quiet, earnest admiration of this friend. He also rather resembles the real Turing more than BTCC does – though Benedict can turn his body to admirable use, going from the fresh-faced Bletchley Park applicant to the older, more drawn fellow undergoing interrogation, to the oestrogen-injected man, stumbling feebly while still trying to work on his machine.
The rest of the cast was also fairly good, from those overseeing Bletchley to those on Turing’s mathematical code-cracking team to the policeman who, having dug into Turing’s past and interrogated him, regrets having done so. It is satisfying to see Turing triumph over Commander Denniston with Winston Churchill as his advocate; gut-twisting to see the team keep German naval plans secret, though the brother of one of them will die within hours on account of it; intriguing to have a Soviet spy found out; and awkward as all get-out to see Turing propose to his friend Joan Clarke lest she leave Bletchley, then break off the engagement on account of his homosexuality (and, one presumes, to keep her safe).
Finally, the set was carefully constructed, both to give visual cues to Turing’s later work and to display a bit more of how his Bombe machine (not actually named “Christopher”) worked. Newsreel clips are spliced in to show footage of both the Blitz and the victory celebrations when the war is over. The film ends with Hut 8 burning their classified work, and on-screen text regarding the end of Turing’s life, British treatment of homosexuals, and the calculation that breaking Enigma shortened the war by more than 2 years, saving over 14 million lives.
Translating a person’s life to not-quite-two-hours of screen time means a lot of oversimplification. This is understandable, and perhaps I’m simply picky, but I found it disappointing that Turing’s work was so cinemafied. All his mathematical discoveries, the philosophical implications of the question “Can machines think?,” his research in biology, is glazed over. Maybe those involved decided such things would require time they couldn’t spare, but it seems a shame to present Turing’s life without digging into what he did and what he accomplished outside the context of war.
That, and I can’t roll my eyes hard enough at the repeated line “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” Ugh. Sometimes it’s the people who are really good at math who do the things no one can imagine, Hollywood, though I know that’s a less encouraging thesis to so many of us.
I’m leery about history because my own grasp of it is comparatively weak, and I’m leery about movies depicting historical events because of the cinematic tendency (necessity?) to manipulate characters and happenings in certain ways. In addition, I’m leery of unmitigated condemnation of people’s (or government’s) decisions in the past, using today’s mores.
The onscreen text over the bonfire at the end states outright that Alan killed himself in 1954, after a year of government-mandated hormonal therapy. This is actually a matter of considerable debate: he was given injections, and fourteen months later died of cyanide poisoning, but it is unclear whether he accidentally inhaled fumes from an experiment or purposely ingested it. Either way it is a tragic event and a great loss, but there is a difference between death by misadventure and death by one’s own hand. The ever-burgeoning machine for LGBT interests may, I suppose, claim him as martyr where the estrogen injections were concerned (quite appalling enough for some); it therefore strikes me as suspicious that they couldn’t leave it at “Alan died of cyanide poisoning in suspicious circumstances which may have been suicide.”
From what I’ve read, Turing was not left broken by the treatments; even his experience of gynaecomastia spurred his biological research. So presenting him as an enfeebled creature who couldn’t solve his crosswords anymore leaves me with a bit of a bad taste, as it seems more fit to say “Look at what he accomplished in spite of it all!”
All in all, I recommend The Imitation Game, though more for its virtues as a movie than for its historical accuracy. Expect to leave the theater thinking a little bit about Turing’s accomplishments, but mostly pondering the role of government, the nature of homosexuality, and the law.