Posthumously exonerating Alan Turing may not be enough to remind the world of the mathematician’s role in computing, World War II, and gay history. The Imitation Game certainly will put the genius into the common conscious and not just outside tech history lore. Thankfully, the film does not rely on an Oscar-bait polish to tell a compelling story that revisits a time when the Axis powers seemed utterly unstoppable.
In the early 1950s, Alan Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) home has been robbed, but he was not the one to inform the police. Suspicious of his failure to report the robbery, Turing is interrogated by the police, and begins to recount his time at Bletchley Park during World War II, the United Kingdom’s control center for coding breaking. Turing, along with several others, begin focusing on a methodology to crack Nazi Germany’s Enigma. Turing begins to blueprint a machine to do much of the work, but Turing’s machine was the first of its kind, and its usefulness was not initially well-received by Turing’s associates and superiors.
The Imitation Game not only celebrates the number-crunching, war-winning role of Turing’s Christopher, but the secrecy around pre-Cold War espionage and the stigma of homosexuality. The film crisscrosses between Turing’s youth, the war, and the post-war role of love in his life. Love enters and exits his life in devastating ways, but it would be his ultimate demise, despite Turing’s influence on computing and the Allied victory.
The film also points to the seedlings of the Cold War and the role of espionage between the West and Russia. Early in the film, an encrypted letter meant for Russian eyes was intercepted by the UK, who suspects someone in Turing’s group was responsible. Turing is immediately dismissed as the author due to the simple encryption, but threat of Turing’s work landing into the wrong hands increases his anxieties about getting Christopher to operate as expected. Helping him with schematics at night in secrecy is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly), the only female on the team who becomes a dear friend of Turing.
Despite Turing’s role on history, his eccentric genius isolated him socially like many great mathematicians and engineers. There have been many films depicting monstrous figures inflicting emotional and physical pain onto others in 2014. Whiplash featured a strict and abusive Jazz instructor who sought to break down and shame his students into performing at his impeccably high standards. Steve Carrell’s du Pont in Foxcatcher also forced his team into demanding positions to get the most out of his Olympic wrestling team. But Bendict Cumberbatch’s Turing inflicts disparaging remarks and social faux-pas among his team, oftentimes inadvertently, and in-turn receives similar social pressure from his peers.
The computer that Turing and his team eventually build is a massive beast named Christopher, after Turing’s childhood friend. The machine spins its flywheels to a rhythmic clicking and clacking sound, synonymous with the marching threat of Nazi boots. Christopher and its £100,000 expense was not an afterthought for Turing’s superiors, and the machine became a symbol not only for the encroaching Nazis, but Turing’s inability to be an outwardly gay man. The title of the film, which refers to Turing’s own test to determine a machine’s ability to convey intelligent behavior at the level of a human, also refers to the goal of breaking Enigma, which is to imitate how the code works, in order to counter threats.
Films released late in the year tend to have that warm, gleaming shine to be considered prestigious enough for Oscar buzz and other awards of the season. Since the mid-1990s, this buzz and shine sometimes leaves a nauseating feeling that our senses have been overwhelmed not to deliver a captivating story but win awards. The Imitation Game, while certainly a prestige film with a glossy sheen, side-steps vomit-inducing production values and over-wrought sweeping crane shots and orchestration to truly explore Turing’s role in closing the European Theater, initiating computing as a practical industry and not just theoretical, and retroactively exploring the heinous crimes against LGBTQ men and women by the UK, and perhaps rebooting our own values.