Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Imitation Game (Weinstein Pictures, Black Bear Productions, Bristol Automotive, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Imitation Game, made in 2014 and a biopic of British computer scientist and codebreaker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), who was recruited by the U.K. government for the war effort during World War II and was one of the principal experts that successfully cracked the German Enigma coding machine — only after the war he was caught patronizing a male prostitute when the guy burglarized Turing’s home and a neighbor reported it to the police. (Actually Turing himself filed the police report but then tried to take it back when he realized what the consequences would be — but too late.) Turing has become a sort of cause célèbre among Gay people in general and British Gay people in particular — indeed it’s arguable that he’s become the second most famous Gay martyr in British history (next to Oscar Wilde) and his life story has been told in at least two biographies (with the punning titles Breaking the Code and Alan Turing: The Enigma) and a cantata recently written by the Pet Shop Boys and premiered at one of the BBC’s Proms concerts. The film The Imitation Game was based on Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma — a punning title that also becomes a leitmotif in the film, “Enigma” referring to Turing’s own character as well as the code machine he successfully broke with his “Bombe,” a large machine designed to work through all the possible settings for the Enigma machine and therefore enable the code analysts at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking operation in World War II which was disguised as a radio manufacturing factory (just as the effort in the U.S. to build the first atomic bomb was disguised as the “Manhattan Engineering District,” though the colloquial name that has stuck was “Manhattan Project”), to read all Germany’s supposedly secret messages.

The film cuts back and forth between Turing as a schoolboy (as which Alex Lawther plays him) and his crush on schoolmate Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon) until Christopher dies of tuberculosis in his teens, an event which supposedly crushed Alan and made him feel he’d lost the love of his life even though, according to an “trivia” poster, Morcom wasn’t Gay and was decidedly uninterested in Our Alan “that way” — along with Turing during the war and Turing in 1951 (actually a year earlier than his real arrest) being interrogated by a surprisingly sympathetic detective, Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear, son of Roy Kinnear, who played the mad scientist’s assistant Algernon in the Beatles’ movie Help!), who like Captain Vere in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (turned into an opera in 1951 by two other British Gay men, composer Benjamin Britten and co-librettist E. M. Forster) doesn’t believe in the law he’s charged with enforcing but enforces it anyway. Since the film was released under the auspices of the Weinstein Company I had assumed that Harry and Bob Weinstein produced it; they didn’t — they picked up the distribution rights for $7 million after a successful festival screening in London in October 2014 — but it’s the kind of movie they’d be interested in: a literate slice of British history with some degree of social significance. Benedict Cumberbatch was actually nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for playing Turing but lost to Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything — so the actor who played straight British scientist Stephen Hawking beat out the one who played Gay British scientist Alan Turing (and to add to the irony, Cumberbatch had played Hawking himself in a 2004 British TV-movie).

The script by Graham Moore (his first feature film) mostly stays within hailing distance of the facts of Turing’s life, but it suffers from some typical Hollywood cliché-mongering (like making Christopher Morcom into such a huge influence over Turing after his death that he even names the Enigma-solving computer “Christopher” and turning his relationship with his fiancée, fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke — played by Keira Knightley — from a genuinely affectionate one into a marriage he’s willing to enter to satisfy her old-fashioned parents and keep her at Bletchley, only they break up suddenly and violently when he tells her he’s Gay) as well as vastly inflating the importance of Turing’s role in breaking Enigma and determining what was to be done with the intelligence gained therein. This movie doesn’t mention the Polish codebreakers who fled to England when the Nazis occupied their country at the start of World War II and brought with them not only a working Enigma machine but also the prototype of the “Bombe” computer with which Enigma was eventually decoded; nor does it mention Gordon Welchman, the co-designer with Turing of the British Bombe. It also has Turing accused of being a spy for the Soviet Union, a charge never actually made against him, and though it depicts a real Soviet spy, Sir John Cairncross (Allen Leech), it has him trying to recruit Turing as a spy by threatening to “out” him as Gay — which never happened. Nor was Turing accused of espionage post-war even after Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess, two of the spies who became known as the “Cambridge Four,” defected to the Soviet Union in 1951 and, since they were Gay (as were the other two known members of the ring, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt), British intelligence began investigating just about anyone with both access to classified information and homosexual inclinations, as if Gays were either inherently twisted enough to become spies or could be easily blackmailed into doing so. (Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” — the same charge that had been leveled against Oscar Wilde over a half-century earlier — but was never charged with anything else; he was subjected to mandatory medication with a drug designed to suppress his sex drive, but it also sapped his motor skills and ability to concentrate; two years after he was sentenced he was found dead, an apparent suicide.)

What’s more, it delegates to Turing and his associates most of the decision-making as to when the Ultra intelligence (the British secret service’s code name for Enigma-derived information) would be used and when it wouldn’t — since the British didn’t want the Germans to realize their code had been broken, a lot of attacks, ship sinkings and bombing raids that could have been prevented with Ultra information weren’t (one of which is referenced in the film when a member of Turing’s crew announces that his brother is serving on a ship the Germans are going to sink because Turing feels re-routing the convoy it’s on would risk betraying the secret), when in fact those decisions were made at considerably higher command levels of the British government than we see here. What’s best about The Imitation Game — named for an article Turing wrote in which he devised the famous “Turing test” to see if a machine had actually become capable of independent thought — is Cumberbatch’s intriguing performance. He plays Turing much the way he’s played Sherlock Holmes in the modern-day updating on the British TV series Sherlock — as an impossible intellectual loner with feelings of superiority to the common run of humanity, a whiz at math but someone who has to learn the conventions of normal social intercourse with his fellow human beings. The film is decently directed by Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian filmmaker who’d never made a movie in English before, but he doesn’t seem to have had any linguistic or cultural barriers in his way to producing a quite literate, even if rather slow-moving, film about the sort of story the Weinsteins love and often (though not this time!) are able to shepherd into multiple Academy Award wins.