The Imitation Game (2014)
November 17, 2014 10:03 AM - Subscribe

English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing, helps crack the Enigma code during World War II.

Review from
"Tyldum's film taps the right emotions in telling the invigorating and haunting story of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician whose blinding, egomanical genius proved crucial for British intelligence's deciphering of the Nazi's encrypted military communications, changing the course of World War II. His post-war experiences left this singular man broken and defeated.

"The movie is the big awards contender for the Weinstein Company, and the trade reviews and other prominent Oscar bloggers have already called Benedict Cumberbatch's lead performance as the tragic figure a top-flight Best Actor contendor. It's middlebrow in the best sense, lively and intelligent and sharply produced."
Director: Morten Tyldum
Writers: Andrew Hodges (book), Graham Moore (screenplay)

"PM's apology to codebreaker Alan Turing: we were inhumane" – The Guardian, 10 September 2009.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (20 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
posted by latkes at 11:53 AM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

WHAT HE SAID! (Not sorry.)
posted by homunculus at 12:06 PM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:41 PM on November 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Tyldum, Cumberbatch and Knightley offered themselves to this Q&A on "Making and Social Import of 'The Imitation Game'". (It starts out with mentions of Tyldum's 2011 Headhunters [Netflix], which is a terrific thriller with a good sense of its own scale. An earlier social comedy of his, Buddy, is also on Netflix, though I haven't seen it.)

This may answer questions of how they hose to cover the material, particularly in light of previous dramatizations such as the award-winning Breaking the Code [BBC/Jacobi version on YouTube!].

I saw a critical comment that this film did not draw out enough of the importance of Turing to queer history. I can't speak to that, but it's been said before that if the victory of the Allies in the Second World War could ever be reduced to one man, that man would be Turing.
This is not to slight any of the other contributors, of which there were thousands, including three Poles who began cracking the Enigma in the 1930s. But the efforts at Bletchley Park were about putting the code breakers together with strategists and field intelligence, timely enough to make a difference, and much of that is down to Turing's efforts. Many of the important bits of WWII relate to massive organizational efforts, such as the Manhattan Project.
I have a small personal story about the latter. My grandfather taught at the University of Chicago, and one day while he was teaching a class the Army showed up and took over a building -- the one including his office, which he wasn't allowed to go back to. I gather they boxed it up and delivered it elsewhere.

Regarding the apology, it led to a campaign for his conviction for gross indecency to be pardoned. After over a year of campaigning, during which the Justice Minister Lord McNally recommended against a posthumous pardon on procedural grounds, and a bill in the House of Lords, PM Cameron recommended the Queen grant Turing a pardon, which came last December. Meanwhile, 2012, the centenary of his birth, was celebrated by the international IT community as the Alan Turing Year.

The pardon drive was led largely by computer scientist Dr Sue Black, who wrote a crowdfunded book Saving Bletchley Park. On the way to visit the site she had an interview on the show Carpool, a good backgrounder to the cryptographic aspects (but none of the place visible, just so you know).

One of the aspects of Turing's story is that Bletchley Park was suppressed under the Official Secrets Act, and much of what was accomplished there did not begin to leak out until the 1970s. Certainly since 1985 when Breaking the Code debuted on the West End, Turing's importance has become only ever more clear.

A last goodie: A demonstration of Colossus.
posted by dhartung at 6:38 PM on November 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

I just saw this! It's okay. Perfectly competently put together, and you'll likely enjoy it, but given the dramatic potential of Turing's life it could definitely be better. I will say that Benedict Cumberbatch is very good in the role, though, playing Turing slightly on the spectrum without being overbearing and with a sort of sweetness that permeates through. He's not channelling his inner Sherlock, which is what I feared would be the case going in, and it's all the better for it. He'll likely get an Oscar nod (especially with the Weinsteins producing!) and it's hard to begrudge him that. The actors around him do good work as well, and director Mortem Tyldum puts it all together just fine, without doing anything particularly exciting. The script is also fine; not especially subtle (there's a quote about how unique people can be special and brilliant that gets repeated 3 or 4 times in the film just in case you didn't pick up on it the first time which is particularly egregious) but otherwise, like the directing, it's solidly unspectacular. This is also a slightly weirder criticism, but I also think the film is trying to be too funny, particularly at the beginning; the strongest moments of the film come in its dramatic beats, and, in my experience watching the movie, I think the audience were primed wrongly by the comedic elements at the start, and as a result laughed at moments which weren't intended to be laughed at by the filmmakers necessarily, undoing the dramatic impetus somewhat. A rewatch with a different audience, of course, might entirely change my opinion here!

One thing I absolutely do have a problem with, though, is how they depict (SPOILERS if you know nothing about Turing's life, I guess?) Turing's suicide. The movie elects to end on a kind-of positive, feel good note and omits depicting the actual event. Instead it flashes up text at the very end informing the audience what will happen next off screen, which feels like a massive dramatic cop-out; Turing's life is ultimately one of being rejected by society despite everything he accomplishes, and the movie's message is the complete opposite of that. It also really tastelessly winks about his future suicide at a number of points, bringing in references to both cyanide and apples into the movie (Turing killed himself with a cyanide-coated apple), and playing both of them for laughs. Depicting his tragedy in that way just feel kind of gross honestly.

Given the source material, and the calibre of people working on the movie, it's perfectly watchable. I wish it were less problematic and more than that though.
posted by MonsieurPsychosis at 4:20 PM on November 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

Strangely, and perhaps pedantically, the thing that annoyed me was the use of the words "fired" and "smart", perhaps because they were repeated so often. In 1940s England, they would have said "sacked" and "clever". I wondered why, given that the filmmakers had paid such attention to the costumes and the cars and the hairstyles (and Blitz London is superbly recreated), they couldn't be bothered to get the words right. On the other hand, these insignificant little words had two useful scepticism-encouraging effects with relation to the script: a Brechtian effect in that it brought me out of the film and made me interrogate the script; a Canary effect - if such small details are wrong, how wrong are much more important parts of the film?

As I understand it, a Turing Machine is not just an old-fashioned name for a computer, but as with the cursory mention of the Imitation Game itself (which isn't actually "telling a police officer the entire story you're supposed to keep secret on pain of death") it seemed like they put that at the end in order to slip the words in somewhere.

But in general I enjoyed it as there's a lot to enjoy - acting, direction, art direction, cinematography, some of the jokes. Shame about the script, though.
posted by Grangousier at 5:33 AM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Found this thoroughly enjoyable, and it was a competent and interesting movie, but felt that it landed in a sort of no man's land between Biopic With Fidelity to Historical Fact and Fascinating Inspired By The True Story Of historical drama.

In retrospect, I think I would have enjoyed this movie substantially more if it had been wholly fictionalized, i.e., instead of Alan Turing, the main character could have been someone named, I don't know, Evan Drury, and then all of the historical liberties wouldn't have bothered me as much.

Because there is a great story in there, and the direction was very slick, and the acting performances were of high quality, but it felt a lot more like a near miss than a great film.
posted by MoonOrb at 12:17 PM on December 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

The movie elects to end on a kind-of positive, feel good note

I'm not sure about that. It chooses to celebrate the results of Turing's work, and yes, it does oddly telescope the last year of his life into one scene and a caption.

But that last scene between Turing and Clarke makes it clear how devastating the effects of chemical castration were upon Turing: the tremors, the inability to even start the crossword. That wasn't a feel-good moment; that was an illustration of institutional cruelty.

I found the framing device of the interview less successful -- like Grangousier, it seemed to me mostly a way to slip the concept of the Imitation Game / Turing Test into the story. Why is Detective Nock so interested in whether machines think? And why would Turing, a man who spent the entire war keeping the nation's biggest secret, spill it all to the man who's going to convict him?

It also seemed to me that that device, by making Nock a sympathetic character, rather undercut the savagery of the UK's sodomy laws and the cruelty of applying them to Turing; a shitty system but at least this copper's a good egg, right? But as depicted in the film Turing's conviction was a direct result of Nock's suspicions about Turing's character and his past.

I saw a critical comment that this film did not draw out enough of the importance of Turing to queer history.

A lot of the complaints seem to be that it wasn't explicit enough in depicting him as gay; it's quite coy about it, the line about "entreating a young man to touch my penis" as direct as it gets. But I think it did succeed in (a) painting Turing's sexuality as plain matter-of-fact, and (b) showing how desperately dangerous and secretive being gay in the 1950s was.

This Gawker review touches on the gay themes; Peter Tatchell's Telegraph piece discusses the film in the context of the UK's history of institutional homophobia.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:03 AM on December 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was quite suprised to see it was based on the Andrew Hodge book, TBH, because most of my objections to it come from.
posted by Artw at 11:29 AM on January 4, 2015

After reading a review over at /r/badhistory I lost a lot of interest in this movie. I was not expecting a film about Turing’s sexuality (though I would’ve enjoyed it as part of the not-heterosexual populace) so that is not a problem to me. I was expecting a film about breaking code and about Bletchely.

Reading the review gave me the impression this wasn’t what I would be getting, and watching the film I have to agree with them (to some extend). I still feel like I haven’t seen the Bletchely team in action, just Cumberbatch’s Turing in action. However enjoyable, not what I hoped for.

The problem might be as taylororo described:
For me, the central lie of these types of movies is how they condense the work of a team into one Randian super genius. The idea of the lone inventor pushing mankind forward is almost always a bunk one that's done for lazy storytelling purposes.
Another comment I liked, which I seem to pick-up on here in the discussion as well, was one by noisette915:
The real story isn’t boring! Code breaking and spying and WWII and one of the founders of computing and English accents and Winston Churchill and the protagonist helped tremendously in saving Britain from nazis and helps introduce computers to the world and yet is persecuted for being gay!

Why the fuck would you feel the bad to bullshit it up?!
I guess this is what I get for going out of my comfort zone and not sticking to comedies.
posted by Martijn at 2:22 PM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

That's the thing: not only did they make stuff up, what they made up was kind of boring and generic. And there was more than enough material in what actually happened that was plenty interesting.
posted by Artw at 2:40 PM on January 4, 2015 [5 favorites]

FWIW it was well made, well acted (if you assume Turing was awkward and detached which a apparently he wasn't, and that his boss was Charles Dance as Charles Dance) and probably fine if you're not super picky about the history - though even of you know nothing about It things like the scene where Turing and his crew puzzle out the basic principles of signals intelligence for themselves are going to be off.
posted by Artw at 2:45 PM on January 4, 2015

We saw this yesterday, straight after seeing The Water Diviner (Russell Crowe's directorial debut) and the movies made an interesting pair. Both World War movies (I & II, respectively) and both with really fascinating stories to tell. However The Imitation Game was so much more affecting (the very kind lady next to me gave me her tissues!).

The two movies chose to portray history a certain way in service of the stories. Water Diviner took a very direct, emotional approach with a score that told you exactly what to feel and when. Lots of thousand yard stares and wistful glances too. Imitation Game was far more subtle and let the story tell itself, via observation of internal states.

Historical accuracy aside, The Imitation Game told a story of a man who was severely let down by his country. Matthew Goode put it really well: "Turing's life and how as a nation we celebrated him as being a hero by chemically castrating him because he was gay" (from the "controversy" section here).
posted by prettypretty at 4:01 PM on January 4, 2015

Charles Dance as Charles Dance

Yes, he was particularly Charles Dance-y in this.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 6:40 PM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

While I agree with the general impression that it was overly general and just historically wrong I will say this for it. My wife and I went to see this and I had told her the story and known the story having been a CS major in college and avid reader of Neal Stephenson who enjoys putting homosexual scientists into his historical and speculative fiction, but seeing this movie really made it land for us. We went home talking about how it wasn't really all that long ago that All of Society Knew That Homosexuality Was an Illness and a Perversion to be Eradicated, rather than that idea being an opinion held by specific interest groups and countries, something that hadn't really landed in a real way for me, having been born in the Northeast in the mid-eighties. There's a difference between watching grainy black and white footage of pride marches following stonewall and other gay history documentaries and watching a government sentence someone (someone who had helped that same government win a war) to be poisoned for 2 years, resulting in that person's eventual suicide. I'd heard a RadioLab episode about him and meant to get a biography, but the movie has actually motivated me to pick up the Hodges book.
posted by edbles at 2:45 PM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

posted by homunculus at 3:58 PM on January 11, 2015

MeFi, dagnabit.
posted by homunculus at 4:16 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was expecting a film about breaking code and about Bletchely.

That's what I was hoping for, too, though I was a little pessimistic going in blind because it seemed likely that The Very Dramatic Drama Of Alan Turing would end up being more tempting for a feature film than a story really genuinely about codebreaking and the scope of the effort and the war.

Basically it was a nicely done and accessible film of someone's diorama of Turing and Bletchley; I'm probably feeling like a sourpuss about it more because I'm a little familiar with the actual story already than because the film was objectively bad as a biographical yarn. Cumberbatch was good but I feel like what he was good at was doing a still-too-Sherlockian smart-with-a-bastardy-affect riff on Turing instead of playing him as the merely somewhat awkward person I have the impression of him being. It felt very compressed into a socially redemptive character/team arc that didn't do much for me.

But the scene that I think most annoyed me was the immediate and convenient revelation of Peter Hilton's brother being doomed to die in the convoy attack that was among the various orders our codebreaking Scooby Squad had just stayed up all night decrypting to celebrate their success. Because, yes, this was a central and terrible dilemma in the secret cryptographical struggle underlying the war, but if we need a touchstone event with which to summarize and dramatize that point we already have one well established in the bombing of Coventry; and the struggle with this powerful but must-be-kept-secret tool was one that went far beyond the personal feelings of a handful of people in Bletchley.

And so taking all that and compressing it down to a tremendous personal coincidence and to Peter being sad and horrified and Alan being correct and horrified and the drama of a punch across the jaw just feels like a needless cheapening of the actual historical horror and weight of having to apply and live with the pragmatic calculus of knowing people will die, knowing you could stop it, and knowing you shouldn't.

And on the whole I think that's most of what I don't like about the film: it's too much a toy version of all the fascinating and terrible and brilliant and tragic things that did happen. It's all too convenient and too stark and too easy for reasons that may make a more steady film product but don't make it a better story about either Turing or Bletchley Park, or the war itself.
posted by cortex at 6:28 PM on January 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

I feel I should put in a good word for two aspects not discussed yet - the incredible performances of the child actors and the role of Keira Knightly. The two child actors who played Turing and Christopher in the flashbacks were incredibly good and I was amazed at the depth of their performances.

Knightly's role was personally satisfying to me in that she (a) kicked ass as a brainiac and (b) had a really great friendship (well before the marriage thing) with Turing that wasn't sexualized *at all* - they had a great working relationship for the majority of the movie and I enjoyed the scenes of them working together (it must be fantastically hard to depict that in a film in a way the audience will find interesting/dramatically relevant).

I can see I'm in the minority here - I even loved Dance being all Dancey and stuff - and perhaps I just needed a good yarn that i didn't have to think about critically too much on a Sunday afternoon.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 9:19 AM on January 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just saw this and I agree with all the criticisms, it's annoying the changes they made, it's too pat in a bunch of ways it doesn't need to be. It's infuriating that a movie about a Genius who Geniusizes has him (and all of them) take years to realize that they could be looking for the letter strings they know will be in the messages. And that the movie very clearly thinks the audience is too dumb to get the moral of the story the first few times it's repeated, so better stick it in again just to be sure.

But on the other hand, it was good enough, and the people we went with (who don't know Turing or anything about Bletchley or computers) were really moved by it... so I think it's working as intended for that kind of audience. Formulaic but well-done example of how the formula is effective. And yeah, there are a bunch of good things about it - beautifully shot, the performances were mostly quite good, I agree the kids were really great, they let Keira Knightley just be a smart woman who wants to do work she's proud of, and I could buy their relationship. They didn't screw up a lot of the things they could have screwed up (eg, I was really happy there weren't a bunch of kissy parts).
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:51 PM on January 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

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