Lowdown: The personal story of Alan Turing and his cracking of WW2 Nazi encryption.
The Imitation Game is a movie that seems to be driven by two needs. Or rather, the need to glorify two people. The first is giving the largely unknown mathematician Alan Turing, one of the forefathers of the modern day computer and – as the movie would tell you – probably the one person that made the most personal difference to the course of World War 2. The second is Benedict Cumberbatch, the fine actor for whom the portrayal of Turing’s eccentric character is a tool with which to further demonstrate his substantial acting skills.
In order to achieve both goals, The Imitation Game plays a trick on us viewers. It tells us three stories at the same time, taking us through simultaneous peaks and valleys in their development. Chronologically speaking, the first story is of Alan Turing the child, the issues he faced as a child, and the realisation he is a homosexual; the second is Alan Turing during WW2, the eccentric genius antisocial of a mathematician whose talents crack the Nazi Enigma encryption machine and allow the Allies to know what the enemy is planning; and the third is the story of post war Turing, now an unknown professor (the matter of the Enigma’s decryption was kept secret for decades) living in a country where homosexuality is illegal.
At the core of it all is the portrayal of the struggles that those of us at the fringes of society have to contend with. The Imitation Game clearly portrays Turing as a Sheldon Cooper like character only without the comic element The Big Bang Theory character is full of; not only that, Turing has to grapple with his homosexuality, too. In parallel, and in order to boost its message, The Imitation Game uses the character of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), portrayed as Turing’s main supporter during the war effort, in order to demonstrate how similar issues affected middle 20th century women in England just the same. Obviously, one key point to take from all of these stories is that although homosexuality is no longer illegal our society is still marginalising those that stray from convention. Women and LGBT aren’t there yet, as far as equality is concerned, and at the rate things are going may never achieve true equality.
The unique nature of Turing, as portrayed in the film, as well as the focus dedicated to its only female character, raise the question of how loyal to the truth this fact based movie is. The answer is “I don’t know”, but I severely doubt quite a lot of what The Imitation Game does. For a start, as someone who read about Turing, it could well be that his movie character portrayal went to further extremes than the historical character. Then again, let us not forget The Imitation Game is a Cumberbatch driven vehicle just the same, and the well known fact that the more compromised a movie hero's character is the more accolades are bestowed on its actor. With regards to Knightley’s role, isn’t it clear that a movie needs a female character? Even if it is a movie about a homosexual guy? Well, at least Knightley’s is a strong female character and not your typical Hollywood bimbo.
My criticism and cynicism do ill justice to The Imitation Game. Through its structure and strong character development, this is a thrilling, very well made and quite an exciting movie to watch; definitely one of 2014’s best. And yes, the acting talent at hand is responsible for a lot of this success, with smaller roles (e.g., Charles Dance) often stealing the show.
There is also no denying The Imitation Game has got itself a story worth telling. The world needs to know how the Enigma was cracked (and I do wonder whether Turing did build a mechanical computer to do this with, the way he did in the movie). The world needs to know how homosexuals were treated if there is any hope to be had in homosexuals enjoying equal rights today. Here’s to you Russia! But even in Australia, gays cannot legally marry...
As an aside, and not directly related to the movie’s core themes, I do have to say that the discussion it offers with regards to encryption, the way it was applied at the pre-computer age, is rather fascinating when compared to today’s standards. Think about it: the Germans relied on their Enigma machines so much, that they published their communications out there for the whole world to hear under the assumption no one but the intended receiving German could make sense of the message. We do the same today: we publish our Internet banking and much more online for the whole world to tap into, under the assumption that encryption works and these communications can only be read by us and our banks. Into the picture step the NSA & Co, taking the role of Turing upon themselves, and doing their best to tap into our stuff as if we were - each and every one of us - Nazis. Unlike Turing, it seems the NSA is generally unable to crack the most sophisticated forms of encryption, but they can definitely attack the communications at their end points where they are not encrypted. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know of this Turing like NSA menace, so we come up with countermeasures: we have tools such as Signal offering best practice encryption, and tools like Bleep that route communications in a manner that makes them less easy to catch. The ongoing war wages on and is just as fascinating as it was during Turing’s time!
Overall: Praise be Turing. 4 out of 5 crabs that, in many many ways, owe a lot to Alan Turing.
Interesting note: According to The Imitation Game, once the Enigma was cracked, the Allies – through Turing – would use statistics in order to determine how to best address the intelligence gathered from intercepted messages. As someone interested in games theory, who never heard of this before this movie, I do wonder how those calculations were made.