Friday, December 26, 2014

"The Imitation Game": Fine Movie; Distorted History

Film-fan me loved "The Imitation Game." The me who knows something about World War II felt that "The Imitation Game" was a bit of an unfortunate farce.

Aesthetically "The Imitation Game" is like a hundred other movies about British people dressed in attractive but muted woolens who march about speaking about God and country and occasionally dropping their civilized masks and giving play to their violence or their lust. We've seen all this before: the vintage clothing, the vintage cars, the vintage architecture, the golden lamplight on vintage interiors. We've seen it on Masterpiece Theater and Merchant Ivory and Jane Austen films and Downtown Abbey which I've never watched but which I feel as if I have watched.

"The Imitation Game" is also like a lot of bio pics.

I really do wish "The Imitation Game" had some aesthetic surprises up its sleeve.

"The Imitation Game" treats very complicated subject matter: the breaking of an unbreakable code. I wanted the movie to tell me something about this topic that I didn't already know. The film just puts an enigma machine on a table and has a bunch of smart characters stare at it and announce that it can produce one hundred fifty followed by eighteen zeroes variations. Okay, but how? Give me something technical. The movie never trusts its audience, or its own storytelling skills, enough even to scratch the surface of the nuts and bolts of code-breaking.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives a fine performance as the film's version of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who helped to decode Germany's Enigma during WW II. In the film, Turing displays symptoms of Asperger's. He doesn't get jokes and he has few friends. Everyone is mean to him. He lives an isolated life with only one significant human companion, his school chum Christopher. Turing is awkward and superior with his fellow codebreakers, and they hate him. He is light years more advanced than they. If only they could appreciate his brilliance! Turing is regarded with suspicion by his superiors. They almost arrest him. They break into and search his home. Again, this all feels hackneyed.

Enter Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). Joan is a gifted code-breaker. Like Turing, she too faces difficulties because of others' ignorance and prejudice. People don't realize that a woman can be a worthy code-breaker and they keep her back and put her down.

Joan encourages Turing to overcome his Asperger's symptoms and to befriend his coworkers. He does so.

A casual comment by a secretary, that each German message ends with the words "Heil Hitler," leads Turing to have the Aha moment that breaks Enigma. His jubilation is short-lived. He realizes that he can't rescue an English ship because if he does so, the Germans will realize that the English have broken their code. Turing devises a mathematical method to determine when to use information gathered from breaking the code, and when not to.

Two other timelines are intertwined with the WW II timeline. We are shown Turing's schooldays. He interacts with Christopher, his schoolboy crush and only friend. Christopher departs from his life and Turing is heartbroken. The headmaster of the school is cold in breaking this news to young Turing. Poor little Turing must bear this hard news all by himself.

In the other timeline, also interwoven randomly into the WW II timeline, Turing is interrogated in the early 1950s for "gross indecency" – homosexuality. Turing undergoes chemical castration. This affects his ability to think. He can't even do a simple crossword puzzle in the newspaper. He is a broken man. The film insists that his death was a suicide. Some, including Turing's mother, are not so sure of that.

I was moved by the film. The scenes of little schoolboy Turing are very poignant; it's always hard to watch children suffer. Cumberbatch is a very competent actor and he plays intellectual intelligence well, which is a rare accomplishment. Not many actors could look as smart as Cumberbatch does. He is convincing as someone with Asperger's.

The me who knows and cares something about accuracy in a film "based on a true story" about WW II was very disappointed with this movie.

"The Imitation Game" erases the significant contribution of Polish war heroes and Polish mathematicians to the breaking of Enigma. Like Turing, the Poles were also cruelly and ignominiously betrayed by the very Brits they helped: from Churchill consciously lying about who committed the Katyn massacre to Churchill handing the Poles to Stalin at Yalta to Brits like Stephen Fry insisting that Polish Catholics caused the Holocaust.

It was ideologically convenient for Brits to shaft the Poles, and the Brits did exactly that. "The Imitation Game" erases the Poles because the film wants Turing to be a lone genius and a lone, martyred homosexual. As it happens, during WW II, there were plenty of opportunities for heroism and martyrdom; Turing did not monopolize the supply.

The film is inaccurate in other significant ways. Turing was treated kindly by the headmaster around the Christopher incident, and Turing remained in contact with Christopher's family. Turing proposed to Joan Clarke because he liked her – he even told her he loved her – not to keep her in the code-breaking program. He tried to re-start their relationship years later. Turing could be funny and charming in real life. Etc.

The bottom line is that the filmmakers wanted to create an image of Turing as an isolated genius, unappreciated by anyone, and persecuted because of his homosexuality. In fact Turing was part of a team of other geniuses, and he was open about being gay. I wish the film had been able to tell us more about how a relatively privileged man had been so ill-treated. His working class lover was not chemically castrated, for example. "The Imitation Game," though, is not really interested in probing complex facts, or in saying anything new. 

Please have a look at this previous blog post by Otto here that tells about the Polish contribution to breaking Enigma 



    1. A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing by Christian Caryl
      The New York Review of Books, December 19, 2014
      Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is now in wide release. This post is drawn from a longer essay that will appear in a coming issue of The New York Review of Books.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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