World War II is the defining event of the 20th century; there is no debate. Without it, everything is different. While most events can claim to change some things, few get to claim that they changed everything. So it makes sense that now, seventy years since victory in the Pacific, we are still telling stories about WWII. What’s striking about Imitation Game though, is the sheer magnitude and importance of the story it is trying to tell. This should be a story that is ingrained in our culture’s consciousness the way Pearl Harbor or the Battle of Britain are. We should be able to recite the beats and moments with accuracy but I’m sure that few new much of this story before this movie came out. For that alone, and despite it’s flaws, everybody should see this movie at some point or at the very least, read up on Alan Turing.
Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and computer pioneer who was a key part of the Allied effort to break the Enigma Code during WWII. He and other scientists, scholars and even chess masters worked to break the unbreakable code the Germans were using to hide their communications. The film spends most of it’s time following Turing and his group in Hut 8, but it also spans part of his childhood and a time after the war, when he has been hobbled by government forced drugs after he is convinced of gross indecency for caring on a homosexual relationship.
I have very little knowledge of how accurate this movie is, but the story it tells is an entertaining and sometimes thrilling one that is primarily propelled and captured by the actors. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing and is very compelling. He plays Turing as brilliant, aloof and impersonal, a man who must be shown how to be friends with other human beings and how to gain the trust and loyalty of others. The scenes after the war, especially the one at his house with Keira Knightley, are absolutely heartbreaking and it relies almost completely on Cumberbatch’s ability to show the despair and sadness Turing must have been feeling at that time of his life.
The rest of the cast is talented and do a good job with what they are given. Knightley shines the most I think in part because she is given the most to do; she plays fellow code breaker, and real life badass woman, Joan Clarke. She and Cumberbatch have an easy chemistry that shines bright; especially when they are off the military campus and better able to be at ease with each other and just be friends and coworkers. Clarke’s having to deal with the social and traditional outlook of bother her parents and herself to a degree are very entertaining; they seem so old fashioned and ancient even though this war is only seventy years ago. Mark Strong is delightfully tricky and mysterious as Stewart Menzies, who was the head of MI6 during the war; his performance is more then a little bit influenced by James Bond. The other standout of the cast, which I repeat was excellent, was Matthew Goode, who played Hugh Alexander, and in the movie is one of Turing’s key friends during the war.
Also of note is the young actor, Alex Lawther, who plays Turing as a teenager. He spends most of the movie being bullied by other boys at school or falling in love with one of his fellow classmates who becomes his friend and only confidant during a time of his life when he was most alone. While I always wanted to get back to WWII, he held my attention better then most would. The times when he hides any suspicious behavior from his headmaster is really powerful and sad.
Movies that are based on real life events and purport to tell an accurate and truthful story have to walk a fine line. They will inevitably embellish and distort things, often in the name of storytelling or suspense, and this movie is no different. I don’t think anything in this movie crosses the line though; there is one scene where they realize that they must keep their information secret so the Germans will not pick up that their code has been broken. That choice is painful for one of their teammates who realize that an impending attack on a fleet will endanger the life of his brother, who is serving on one of the escort ships. This moment never happened, but it serves a useful and important purpose by showing us how critical and important this information is. What is of less importance and usefulness is the way they portray Turing. The performance aside, the filmmakers and script make a choice to portray him is being somewhat autistic or at least on the spectrum. I’m not that familiar with autism in the real world, but it’s clear what they were going for in this movie. It works in that his mannerisms further isolate him from his coworkers and it makes their turn of loyalty to him that much more powerful but if you do a little research, it feels so unnecessary. So much happened in and around Hut 8 that I feel they didn’t need to add things on.
In a modern context, it’s unfortunate that the movie doesn’t focus on Turing’s later years and his private life more then it does. That’s not quite the film I think they were going for, but it’s still an important part of his life and it resonates almost as strongly as the parts when he’s breaking Enigma. His fate is sad and heartbreaking and all the more when you realize how instrumental he was in keeping England free. This movie, above anything else, felt really tragic to me. Multiple times Turing or other’s could have averted his fate and loneliness, but it just never happened.
Next Book: Rasl by Jeff Smith
Next Movie: American Sniper