In telling the story of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game is an interesting conglomeration of films and stories, and which one it feels like to you will probably be more a reflection of your interests and views than of the film itself. It could be a World War II movie, about the various efforts by the Allies to gain the upper hand and win the war against the Axis powers in a race against the clock with lives hanging in the balance. It might feel more like a celebration of math and science, of how wars are won with brains instead of brawn, and how one of the first computers was created to solve an unsolvable problem. Or perhaps it’s the story of a brilliant man with a gift to offer society who is unable to find his place or fit in, and how that society he stood to help eventually destroyed him just because he was different. Regardless of which story you might feel you’re watching, the end result is a compelling, driven, expertly crafted film shedding some light on a man and an endeavor with which few are probably familiar.
At the start of World War II, the German military had the upper hand in many ways, not the least of which was the Enigma machine, a device that allowed German units to openly communicate via an unbreakable code. The device would be programmed with a variety of predetermined settings which changed at midnight each night, and despite the Allies having one of the machines in their possession the code was just gibberish without a way to know which settings were being used. Enter Alan Turing, an exceptional mathematician, who agrees to join others of his kind trying to break the code. He’s motivated only by the challenge of solving the world’s most difficult problem, and his arrogance and his disinterest in working the problem the traditional way ruffles the feathers of his coworkers. Things only get worse when he goes over their heads in order to be put in charge of the group.
His first order of business is to rebuild the group, and he puts out an ad in the paper in the form of a crossword puzzle, asking those who can solve it in a specified time to apply for a position. Those who do are brought in for another test, and among the men is one woman, Joan Clarke, who has degrees of her own and is able to beat even Turing’s time on the puzzle. She joins the team, and they set out to tackle Enigma from a different angle. Turing constructs an elaborate machine full of rotating dials designed to receive input encoded messages and spit back out the settings for the Enigma device which will allow them to decrypt Nazi signals. However, as Turing struggles to make it work he must deal with countless other problems that are not mathematical in nature. His relationship with Joan Clarke, the first person with whom he’s made a real connection since boyhood, grows more complex as expectations build around it. Yet how can he tell her that he is attracted to men instead when homosexuality is against the law? And what of the rumored Soviet spy in his midst? And if they ever manage to decode the German transmissions, how can they most efficiently use their new intelligence without giving the game away.
The Imitation Game often plays fast and loose with history, as one would expect from a film of this sort. Turing’s team, depicted as the last hope for the allies, was actually a small (but important) cog in intelligence machine fighting the Nazis from Bletchley Park. Turing himself wasn’t the socially awkward outcast depicted in the film, nor was his relationship with Joan Clarke what it appears to be onscreen. The “Turing Machine” he created was not an original work but an adaptation and modification of previous such devices, and it was only the first of many such machines created by the British in order to decode Enigma messages. And his accomplishments and breaking the Enigma code was only a part of his contributions to mathematics, computing, and the field of artificial intelligence. Some of these changes serve very specific artistic purposes in the film, others exist simply to help the story flow better, while others are perhaps less excusable.
Nevertheless, The Imitation Game is an engaging film, headlined by its two excellent leads. Benedict Cumberbatch makes Turing something of a tortured genius, always several steps ahead of those who simply can’t understand him. He lives apart from the world, unable to understand the nuances of human interaction, and obsessed with his invention to solve the unsolvable problem. He more than meets his match in Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke, who challenges him every step of the way and offers him a kindred mind and spirit. Knightley gives Clarke the ability to match Turing step for step but without losing sight of the world around them. Any other film would rewrite Turing’s life completely to give the pair a happy romantic ending, but The Imitation Game thankfully doesn’t stretch the truth that far.
As directed by Morten Tyldum, the film strikes an interesting balance between these seemingly separate stories. The codebreaking scenes are tense and like something from a spy thriller, with the clock perpetually ticking down and the constant reminder of Allied soldiers and civilians having to pay the price for every day that passes with the code uncracked. Turing’s mathematical genius and contributions to society play more like a fish out of water story, while the sections of Turing’s later life may feel like a shock to those who aren’t familiar with Turing’s history. As a whole, though, the movie is surprisingly even and entertaining, with just the right mix of the different aspects of the film, and it’s anchored by Cumberbatch and Knightley’s performances.
Inasmuch as a biopic can have a message, the core of the film is encapsulated in a repeated line from the movie: “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” We unfortunately still live in a world where those that society doesn’t understand are often forced to the side, though Turing’s work shows us that great contributions can be made no matter what society may think of you. Yet the shocking truth is that we’re still just a few decades removed from a time when tens of thousands of people (living in the first world, not even considering parts of the world today) were treated like criminals simply because they were gay, and were forced to undergo chemical castration as a means of “correcting” their “problems.” It’s hard not to leave the theater after seeing The Imitation Game and not wonder how much more Turing had to offer had he received different treatment from the government that he did so much to assist. And while that may not be the aspect of the film that speaks to you the most, it was what lingered with me, and is most likely more a reflection of my views than of the film alone. Regardless, The Imitation Game is a captivating film, telling the story of a man and an endeavor worthy of attention and a place in history.