"It’s highly technical!", not quite – The Imitation Game

Last year, my family and I went to see an exhibit in Seattle called “SPY: The Secret World of Espionage.”  It was an intriguing collection spanning historical, military, and technological history, focused mainly on the twentieth century – far back enough to not be secret anymore, yet still close enough to feel recent.  Among other interesting, sometimes diabolical machines, the exhibit had an Enigma encryption device.

“An Enigma code could have 150 quintillion possible solutions.”

This ominous typewriter became Alan Turing’s personal nemesis, when he got a job at the not-so-subtly named Government Code and Cypher School.  A Cambridge academic, Turing put his brilliant mathematical-logical abilities to the task of improving the “bombe” (from the Polish bomba): a machine that would consistently decrypt the Nazis’ Engima messages.  This, if achieved, would gain the Allied Powers an incredible strategic advantage, at a time when they desperately needed it.  The Imitation Game follows this period of Turing’s life at Bletchley Park, the friends and enemies he made there, and the events that led up to his early death.

Being a computer science major, I had heard of Alan Turing before, and so came into this film with some prior knowledge.  The film is full of Hollywood cliches, it can’t be denied – I won’t enumerate all of them here, but certainly, the glamorous production choices, glossing over of the science, and greatly black-and-white personality portrayals were somewhat off-putting, though not unexpected.  It is a movie that borders on “tell” rather than “show.”  Mostly this manifested itself in the portrayal of the computer science.  I don’t expect a full-out documentary info dump, but why not depict, even in layman terms:

  1. The basics of the Enigma encryption scheme
  2. The basics of how a Turing machine works
  3. What the Turing Test is

These are really not very complicated things to put into film.  And yet, I would imagine most viewers coming out of The Imitation Game could not explain any of these three concepts, which have made Turing such an influential figure in the history of computers.  This is a discredit to the man the film tries to honor.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – a role not dissimilar to BBC’s Sherlock.

In spite of these ironies in the screenplay, the film manages to hone in on the social atmosphere of the time, which in itself provokes plenty of thought.  Cumberbatch’s performance is excellent, so much so that he even succeeds in separating this character from Sherlock, though there are striking similarities between the two (again, not necessarily historically correct).  His portrayal is convincing – Turing becomes simultaneously a contrast of strengths and weaknesses, a genius hiding under the guise of a reclusive mathematician.

I had just rewatched Lawrence of Arabia, and can’t help but see parallels between that and The Imitation Game.  Lawrence, after all the suffering he had undergone for the Arabs and the Allies, would see his goal of Arab independence swiftly undermined by the hands of European politicians.  Turing, after the war, was arrested for homosexual behavior and forced to choose between a prison sentence or a “corrective” drug“You are a very small cog in a very large system,” Turing’s boss tells him.  True to the words, Turing’s historic contribution became obscured by military secrecy, his trial, and his sudden death.  It’s a sobering fact which the most glorified history book cannot hide from us, that great heroes, after their victories, are sometimes forgotten, or worse.

Content: Rated PG-13 “for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking.”  There was some risque dialogue and quite a bit of profanity. 

Disclaimer: I don’t own the images in this post; they are used here only for illustrative/educational purposes (fair use).

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