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The Imitation Game

December 12, 2014
The Imitation Game

It’s funny how films sometimes come in pairs. Just this year we had two Hercules movies, and last year we had two where the White House came under attack. It’s rarer that two come out in quick succession, and rarer still that they both chase awards. But while The Theory of Everything has scared up a certain amount of buzz for its vaseline-lensed treatment of Stephen Hawking, it’s The Imitation Game‘s impression of Alan Turing that actually deserves the accolades.

Neither story is unfamiliar to me, as a former student of mathematical physics turned computer programmer. I pulled Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma off my father’s shelf long ago, and it probably had something to do with realizing that it was possible to spend the rest of one’s life thinking about mathematics. Incidentally, Hodges’ biography — on which the film was partially based — has been reprinted with some updated material to cover what wasn’t publicly available thirty years ago. And, as much as I enjoyed the film, Hodges’ biography is superlative, to the point that merely mentioning it online brought out reports from numerous mathematician and programmer friends that it’s the only biography they’ve ever cared for. Incredibly detailed and yet superbly readable, it’s well worth your time.

I also read A Brief History of Time, putting me in the minority on a book famous for sitting unopened on millions of coffee tables. And to be sure, Stephen Hawking is a brilliant mathematical physicist, and an inspiration for success despite adversity. But, to be honest, there’s not really a lot interesting about his particular story. He succeeded because his colleagues recognized the brilliance of his work, and there’s no way a movie is going to even scratch the surface of explaining that properly. All the real struggle is abstracted away from the screen, and we’re left with a series of upturns and downturns, none of which Hawking really affects beyond being too stubborn to give up.

Turing, on the other hand, is a fascinating character in his own right. And while a film can’t really explain his deepest ideas, it can at least give the general idea of his work on breaking the German military cipher called “Enigma”. Indeed, right at the outset we understand the scale of the task: even knowing the mechanism the code key can be any of at least fifteen million million million possibilities — a similar order of magnitude to the number of gallons of water on Earth — and it changes every day. Certain reasoning tricks could be used to cut down the space of keys that had to be searched, but it still took weeks to determine a given day’s key. Polish cryptanalysts had built machines — called “bombes” — to automate the task, but Turing and the team at Bletchley Park refined and advanced this approach, designing the first machines recognizable by us today as computers.

The path is greatly simplified in the film, of course. If you’re really interested, Hodges himself will now point you towards Wikipedia’s article on the cryptanalysis of the Enigma. But it nails enough of the high points — an electromechanical array to try massive sets of keys in parallel, coupled with the team’s mathematical insights to guide the design, followed by an even larger effort to keep the German military from realizing their codes had been broken — that I’m satisfied with the presentation. It does have a bit of the “lone genius” presentation that scientific breakthroughs often receive, and which isn’t terribly accurate in this case either. Still, it makes clear that the work only moved forward in earnest once the Great Man started to collaborate, and this development is essential to the impression the film means to give of his character.

And yet there was so much more to Turing than his work on computers. Most famously he was homosexual, and the last years of his life were ruined by the homophobia of the early 1950s. The Imitation Game doesn’t shy away from this ugly truth, but it doesn’t exactly embrace Turing’s sexuality either; apart from a childhood crush, it plays more that he wasn’t attracted to women than that he was attracted to men. It’s been said that this film is akin to The Help, in that it exists to reassure white liberal audiences that they’d have been “the good ones” who supported and defended Turing anyway. While that’s a fair assertion, I don’t quite agree with it, and I don’t think that’s really what the film is after anyway.

Far more interesting to me is the way Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing’s affect. It’s probably not possible to say for sure whether or not Turing fell on what we’d now call the Autism spectrum, but the person coming off the pages of Hodges’ biography certainly feels like a kindred spirit to many diagnosed today with Aspberger or other neurodivergent conditions. It seems as valid a choice to portray Turing as any, if not a downright inspired one.

Indeed, both Cumberbatch’s Turing and Eddie Redmayne’s (pre-sickness) Hawking come off as similar “nerdy” stereotypes. And while suggesting this is a universal trait among scientists is harmful — both to the scientists themselves and to the future of science in a society that holds such an othering opinion of them — there is some kernel of truth that the sciences provide somewhat of a haven for people who find themselves even slightly disconnected from “normal” social protocols. The real question is not merely whether or not a character seems to match a stereotype, but why.

This is where The Imitation Game really stands out. Redmayne’s Hawking is “nerdy”, but it’s only the most superficial gloss on a character. Cumberbatch’s Turing is drawn to puzzles and codes and ciphers not just because he has an affinity for them, but because for him the day-to-day process of communication is another code. Deprived of the “normal” innate understanding of social cues, he must reason his way through every statement to get at the real message underneath. And then to survive as a homosexual man requires mastering yet another layer of coding, in which he was again less artful than most of his contemporaries. The threads are sometimes thin, but Graham Moore’s script and Cumberbatch’s performance spins them into a strong cord that runs deep into what makes this character work.

And it all comes down to the famous “Turing Test” for artificial intelligence, centered around the “Imitation Game” of the film’s title. When you strip away all the excess noise, a person’s character can’t be judged on the basis of crutches like race, class, sex, or sexuality, or even whether their brain has a biological or electromechanical basis, but only on the messages. Who, the movie asks us, but a man like Alan Turing — gay, neurodivergent, codebreaking Alan Turing — could have thought of it?

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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