I finally watched The Imitation Game last night. I have a great deal of regard for Alan Turing, and I’ve always enjoyed codes and cryptography (the story of breaking the Enigma machine is especially fascinating), so I was really looking forward to finally seeing it.
And… I didn’t like it. A lot. Turns out it reflects everything I see as wrong with movies — and with society — in these social media-driven, over-amped, uncritical modern era days.
Watching the movie to get away from politics, it dragged me right back for having the same lack of authenticity, made up conflict, and disregard for history.
Let me put it this way:
If you’d like to watch Benedict Cumberbatch channeling his autistic Sherlock (without Bilbo for balance), and Keira Knightley wasted in a role beneath her talent, plus a lot of silly manufactured drama and conflict that never happened, and if you want to know as much (or little) about Enigma after as you did before, then this is the movie for you.
If you’d like to know a bit about who Alan Turing really was, or about the Enigma machine and how it was cracked, then you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Or if you want to watch a fairly mediocre romantic comedy without the romance (because one of them is gay and both care more about the work), staring two watchable and fun actors, and you don’t really care about Turing or Enigma (or history) that much, the movie might work for you.
It sure didn’t with me. Possibly because I know a bit about Turing and about Enigma and how it was cracked. Possibly because I expect realistic historic drama to be,… well,… you know,… realistic. And historic.
Turing was not, for example, nearly autistic, but had friends and a sense of humor. Cumberbatch seems to be reusing his Sherlock character, which is either bad acting or bad directing (I suspect the latter).
On top of that, for a movie called The Imitation Game, it never actually explains what the Imitation Game really is. No, it’s not what most people think of as the Turing Test (as the script suggests)! In fact, I’d say it’s something of an over-reach for the movie to include that aspect of Turing’s work at all. It had no bearing on Enigma and didn’t come along until the 1950s.
Bottom line is that the movie had almost no upside for me and lots of downside.
Let me start with the misuse of Keira Knightley’s character, Joan Clarke (who did exist and who was involved in codebreaking at Bletchley Park).
The newspaper crossword recruitment scene is largely fabrication; Clarke was recruited, and Turing had nothing to with that or the crossword puzzles.
When Clarke is introduced, it’s suggested she’s sharper than Turing, and that the movie will include a gender equality message along with the sexual preference equality message.
But neither of those come to any real fruition. It’s just a way to wedge a female co-star into the film. (Clarke’s life story would make a decent bio-pic, I think. For that matter, the whole story of the women codebreakers at Bletchley is a good one!)
The movie shows Turing forcing his way into the program at Bletchley against Commander Denniston’s will. In fact, the Commander recruited Turing and had high regard for him and his ability. The cartoonish asshole shown in the film, who wants to shut down Turing’s work for not showing results, is pure fabrication.
Offensively so. It’s utter bullshit, and it makes me mad.
The movie offers a comic book presentation of the military ogre-boss and the lone wolf maverick who alone can solve the problem despite the hectoring of co-workers and management.
It’s childish and, in this case, simply not at all true.
One particularly egregious scene involves the Commander, along with some soldiers, storming into Turing’s workshop (literally breaking open the door) and, despite Turing’s protests, shutting down the machine by pulling exactly the right three plugs.
(Extremely well-trained soldiers don’t you think? I guess I should be happy they didn’t shoot the machine.)
Manufactured conflict that [a] didn’t happen and [b] stood out like a sore thumb as just plain bad script writing. The military simply doesn’t behave that way. It was a stupid scene.
Another scene that really pissed me off involves the code team cracking one of their first messages and realizing a British passenger convoy is targeted by German U-boats. Horrors! Not just military lives, but civilians! And one of the team, his brother is on one of the boats! Oh, no, Mr. Bill!
The team determines (conflict, conflict, conflict) that they can’t do anything to warn anyone. Even the anguished brother is convinced (and then the movie just moves on).
The scene exists to explain that cracking Enigma was a closely (very closely!) guarded secret because, if the Germans knew, they’d just change the code system. That means you have to be very careful about how you use information gained from the cracked codes. Your reactions have to look like normal operations or that the info came from some other source.
The reality is that the codebreaking team had nothing to do with determining the use of the information. That was all determined at a much higher level (of military leaders with a big picture). Again, this seems incredibly obvious to me, and the scene was so wrong that it hurt my head.
Breaking Enigma was a group effort involving a lot of people. The big break through, the idea of looking for “Heil Hitler” in the message, was known from the beginning. (Looking for a known bit of text, a crib, is a well-established aspect of codebreaking.) That big break through never happened.
Since they never really explain anything about the Enigma machine, viewers probably wouldn’t have any context for the other key thing that helped them crack it: the fact that a letter never mapped to itself.
Instead, Turing has a line about how it takes a machine to beat a machine (which is true enough), and the movie presents all that as this lone effort to build The Magic Machine. We’ve never let in on any of the process involved. We’re never given any real clue how the machine works (’cause it’s magic).
The movie presents a Rocky-like fantasy of individual effort (without ever really showing what that effort involves) combined with the magical “Ah-Ha!” moment that leads to victory after all the struggle and defeat. (It’s actually kind of a sports movie.)
In fact, many people worked on the design of the Bombe, although Turing did make key contributions to that design. Further (and the film does touch on this with a single line from Turing), the Bombe was based on an existing Polish codebreaking machine.
The real story about the Enigma and the Bombe and Alan Turing is, at least to me, plenty fascinating without throwing out most of it and using what little remains as scaffolding for a fairly light-weight period piece. Apparently if you throw in some sort of obvious message, people are very impressed.
The fault probably lies with script writer Graham Moore. This appears to be his first movie script. According to Wikipedia, his only other credit is one episode of a short-lived TV series, 10 Things I Hate About You. (IMDB says he’s also done two shorts.)
Here’s one example of how bad the script is. At one point Turing says he has a pollen allergy. Which he seems to think is some sort of preference determined by his brain. As someone who suffers from hay fever, let me tell you: it ain’t psychosomatic!
I think the bottom line is that, if you’re going to write a historic account of someone like Turing, you’d better have more of a mind like his. If Moore actually does understand any of Turing’s work or history, it’s not at all reflected in his script.
Which is based loosely on Alan Turing: The Enigma, by biographer (and mathematician!) Andrew Hodges. I suspect that book would be worth reading.
As far as I’m concerned, the film wasn’t worth watching. I got nothing from it but aggravation. I give it my lowest rating: Ugh!