The Imitation Game is the enthralling story of an inspired, harassed and troubled genius, British mathematician Alan Turing, whose conquest of the “unbreakable” Nazi “Enigma” code ultimately led to the Allied victory in World War II. Turing was convinced that “Only a machine could beat another machine.” Viewed in historical hindsight, “Turing’s machine” was in effect the invention of the modern-day computer.
The script by Graham Moore, based on Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, frequently touches on the dichotomous relationship between humans and machines, embodied first and foremost in the person of Turing, who is depicted from the outset as a socially clueless, inwardly focused deep thinker, an “odd duck,” someone who today would likely be viewed as being on the autistic spectrum, with a pronounced obsessive-compulsive personality.
Flashbacks to Turing’s teenage school years at Sherborne (where some of the filming took place) show his budding relationship with fellow student Christopher, the only person who understood him and encouraged his special intelligence. The two are especially drawn to codes and games, crossword puzzles and cryptograms, which become the primary vehicle of their embedded communication. This friend became, for Turing, a permanent obsession, long after Christopher’s early death. Turing named his machine Christopher in his memory, the only object onto which he could project his enduring love.
Even as a schoolboy, Turing understands that people do not usually or entirely say what they mean when they speak, a thematic underpinning that declares itself throughout the narrative. One could say that in-person interactive human communication is but an “imitation” of what is truly meant. Tipped off by the title itself, viewers might well have many engaging conversations with other filmgoers as to just what aspects of the theme they can discern, how many pieces of this intricate puzzle they are able to put into place.
Winston Churchill recognized the primacy of breaking Enigma, and spared no expense. Within short order, Turing beat back the slower, less visionary thinkers on the team, and became its leader. A prickly tension runs between Turing (played marvelously by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Commander Alastair Denniston (a chillingly effective Charles Dance). If the Commander knows anything at all, he knows what three ingredients are needed to win a war: Order, discipline, and chain of command. Turing, of course, knows that his challenge extends far beyond the existing framework of thought and must reach a higher, more inventive, intuitive, even playful level.
One thinks of the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose controversial 2012 study The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion denoted differences between the conservative and the liberal brains. One emphasizes control, regimentation, authority; the other openness, tolerance, free inquiry and pluralism. Too many limits can produce an uncontrollable form of disorder and no entrée to the future, while a surfeit of independence of thought and action (perhaps best suited to artists and geniuses) will not by itself get the job done.
Once put in charge, Turing designs an application for new employees based on a sophisticated test of out-of-the-box perception. He dares to hire Joan Clarke (played engagingly by Keira Knightley), a brilliant young woman who is, like Turing himself, an underappreciated intellect very nearly smothered under the blanket of British respectability. The film serves equally well advocating for the mentally “different,” homosexuals, and women’s equality. “Sometimes it’s the people that no one imagines anything of,” a thrice-repeated line in the film reminds us, “who do the things no one can imagine.”
A leitmotif of the film is the hunt for purported undercover Soviet agents. Much of the war effort depended on secrecy, naturally, but there were Brits at all levels concerned that the Soviet allies be more consulted on Allied strategic plans than some of the Allied leadership seemed willing to provide. Like everything else in this historical thriller, lines are blurred, relationships murky, truth is elusive, allegiances subject to question.
All the while, widespread suffering increases day by bloody day: The Germans’ aerial bombing of British cities, increasing hunger in the land, evacuation of children to the countryside, and in the war theaters, torpedoed convoys of supply and troop ships and massive death on the front lines. The high command grows more and more impatient with the Turing team seemingly whiling away their time on a massive room-sized Tinker toy. People are asking, “How long?”
A turning point in the final month of funding granted to the project comes when a low-level auditor of encrypted German broadcasts casually stumbles on the key to Enigma, owing to her “woman’s intuition.” Again, a case of no one imagining an employee at that level capable of contributing the one necessary critical insight.
The most emotionally wrenching part of the film follows the solution of the Enigma code. That’s when it has to be decided, Who can know that the code has been solved? And who determines the application of the new knowledge the Allies have now acquired as to German movements and plans? For if the Germans know that their Enigma has been figured out, they will simply switch to another method of encryption, and the Allies will suddenly be hurled back to square one.
Now that the “Turing machine” has been invented, a new field of statistical analysis using the vast metadata from the Germans must be filtered through an elegant algorithm calculated not to reveal too much, yet effectively to win the war. Yes, all governments lie. At times like these, however, we must admit that secrecy is necessary for the larger aims of civilization, even when – especially when – a great number of lives are on the line. Who draws those lines, and where? Ay, there’s the rub, as an old Brit might have said.
Turing’s post-war life is treated in the film as well. Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play Breaking the Code was one of the first contemporary acts of revelation about this seminal thinker, so his fate is widely known by now. The height of irony is that someone who abhorred violence – a fair amount had been directed at him along the way – would in the end, on June 7, 1954, commit the act of self-destruction that ended his life of pure torment at the tragically early age of 41, thanks to the British justice system that criminalized sex between men.
The British government eventually came to its senses, and by 1967 no longer defined homosexuality as a crime. Posthumous apologies to Turing were duly issued, and as his role in World War II became known, he was recognized as the man whose keen, hyperactive mind saved an estimated 14 million lives. Whole fields of scientific inquiry and advancement flowed forth from his “Christopher,” his bulky, clunking hulk of a machine. The world is inevitably a more complex place to inhabit because of it, in many ways far, far better; in other ways perhaps much worse.
Morten Tyldum directed this superb film, deserving of a huge audience. It won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. A final word goes to the composer of the score, Alexandre Desplat, who at key moments shifts into a Steve Reich type of binary minimalism that perfectly captures the early spirit of computers. Not to be missed.
The Imitation Game
Rated PG-13, 114 minutes.
Photo: Film still from website.