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The Imitation Game •••1/2

The_Imitation_Game_posterStarring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
Director: Morten Tyldum
Screenplay: Andrew Hodges, Graham Moore
Biography/Drama/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2014

Turing: Single, P-P Mental, Pro (Untransformed Lone Hero)

Nazis: System, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Government Villain)


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

We just watched another World War II flick, Greg. This one is quite educational.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a good imitation of Alan Turing. Let’s recap:

We meet young Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant mathematician, logician, and cryptologist. Turing is a socially awkward man who is fascinated with communication codes. He is applying for a position in the British military to help the Allied forces crack the coding system used by Nazi Germany. Turing is placed in charge of a small group of other brilliant minds who are assigned the task of deciphering the Nazi’s “Enigma” codes.

Things are not that easy for Turing. The commanding officer expects the code breakers to decipher messages in 24 hours. But the cipher codes change each day. Turing believes that he must build a machine that will determine the Enigma settings automatically. This effectively breaks the Enigma code permanently.

But Turing needs help. He creates a math puzzle that is published in the British newspapers to attract mathematically inclined minds. One of the contestants turns out to be a bright young woman named Joan Clark (Keira Knightley). Turing hires her, but she isn’t allowed to work with the other men – because she’s a woman. So Turing surreptitiously feeds her secret documents so she can help with the code breaking. And now the race is on to crack Enigma before the Germans overtake Great Britain.

The Imitation Game is one of the better movies of 2014. Like A Beautiful Mind and The Theory of Everything, this movie tells the story of a male genius scientist who is socially challenged and requires the help of a healthy, stable woman for his genius to be realized. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific in this role and deserves Oscar consideration.

The hero story here is constructed with care. Turing is sent into an unfamiliar world in which his vast creativity is put to the ultimate test. His abrasive honesty wins him few friends and attracts several enemies within the British military and intelligence unit. His only ally is his woman friend Joan whom we think is a love interest until Turing’s homosexuality is revealed. Joan proves to be a loyal friend and mentor whose steadfast companionship, not to mention her own genius, proves essential for Turing to triumph.

You’re right that the story is constructed with care, Scott. Sadly, it bears little resemblance to the historical facts. Certain elements are true to life: Nazis, Germany, Britain, Enigma, Joan Clark, Turing, were all there at the same time. But the competition between Turing and the lead general, Commander Denniston, (Charles Dance) was fabricated. Turing’s abrasive (borderline Asperger’s) personality was exaggerated. The objections of the military to creating a machine to crack the code was a complete fiction. Apparently the truth of history wasn’t enough to make a compelling story.

What was true was Turing’s homosexuality and his doomed relationship with Joan. This is where the tragedy of The Imitation Game hits home. After having literally saved the world from the Nazi onslaught, Turing is discovered in 1950 to be gay and is subjected to chemical castration (or face imprisonment). Turing was unable to live under those conditions and ultimately committed suicide. It wasn’t until 2013 that Queen Elizabeth pardoned him. Unlike the other movies you mention, Scott, this one doesn’t have such a happy ending for our hero.

You’ve pointed out the irony within the tragedy of this story. The very society that Turing saves ends up turning against him. Turing defeats the Nazis but he cannot defeat the English society that is intolerant of his sexual orientation. There aren’t many hero stories in which the hero saves the people who kill him. It’s truly a sad, embarrassing, and appalling treatment of a man who should have been revered.

That’s another of my beefs with this movie, Scott. They had to concoct a villain for Turing to fight against. So they created the “Representative” villain in the form of the Commander Denniston. He represents all the conventional thinking in the military and in British society at large. The unseen enemy is the oncoming German army. The writers also create an enemy in the form of time itself. Since the Enigma code is changed daily, the code breakers have to decipher the messages before midnight each night. So, we get a nice countdown to 12:00 every day which creates a nice sense of tension.

Overall, The Imitation Game is two hours well spent, all the historical inaccuracies notwithstanding. Alan Turing is known as the Father of modern computer science and artificial intelligence, and this film gives us some insight into the challenges he faced in developing one of the world’s first computers. Turing’s heroism may have done more to defeat the Nazis than that of any other single individual. This movie tells a great story and features outstanding performances from the entire cast. As a result, I’m happy to award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Turing’s hero story is a stirring one. The man has many demons to overcome and makes many enemies. Does his character become transformed the way a good hero should? Perhaps not. Ironically, his refusal to change may be the key to his heroism. Maybe this is a tale about a British society that refuses to transform as much as it is a tale about a hero who shouldn’t need to. I give Turing’s heroism 4 Heroes out of 5.

Turing is surrounded by villains, including his own people whom he saves. The villains here are two institutions: (1) the Nazis with which Britain is at war, and (2) the antiquated moral codes of the English society that ultimately slay Turing. The manufactured human obstacles within the British military are throwaway characters who are caricatures or tropes of typical obstructionist characters in police and military movies. I’ll be generous and give this entire diverse array of villains a rating of 3 Villains out of 5.

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Scott, I’m a computer scientist and Turing is one of my personal heroes. He laid the foundation for formal computing theory (the Turing Machine). I am thrilled that a movie that celebrates his genius was given a proper Hollywood treatment and didn’t shy away from Turing’s homosexuality. However, I can’t reconcile the historical inaccuracies that pepper this film. It’s a complete fiction that merely borrows the essence of the truth. I would normally agree with your score of 4 Reels, but I’m knocking one off because I think the true story would have made an equally viable movie. I give The Imitation Game just 3 out of 5 Reels.

Turing is a tragic hero in that he saves the world from the Nazi scourge, only to be destroyed by the very people he saved. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a wonderful performance and I agree that he should be nominated for an Oscar. There isn’t much transformation here. There is a scene where Joan Clark lectures Turing on playing nice with his fellow mathematicians. After which Turing appears to make friends by sharing apples with his co-workers. But he overcomes obstacles that allow him to rise to the level of a true hero. I give this presentation of Turing 4 out of 5 Heroes.

As you point out, the villains here are pretty generic. Nazis are a pretty safe bet as a villain in any story. And Denniston gives Turing a ripping hard time. I can’t summon more than 2 out of 5 Villains for this film.

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