Skip to main content

The Imitation Game

World War II has proven to be a great, perhaps THE great source for all manner of literature and film since 1945.  Death and destruction on a previously unimaginable scale, sure.  But a gold mine for writers and filmmakers.  Almost seven decades on, despite existing mountains of scholarship and art, new narratives or wrinkles seem to emerge yearly, while those stories long-established provide their ongoing variations.  So it is with one of history's great thrillers, the breaking of the Nazi's seemingly unbreakable Enigma code.

In the last dozen or so years alone, there have been several productions based on the long-secret effort.  Enigma (2001), written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Michael Winterbottom, is a highly-fictionalized story set in the actual English code-breaking center at Bletchley Park.  More recently, the English series Bletchley Park (2012-14) followed a group of women who worked at the Milton Keynes complex during the war, relegated to more traditional female roles in the Britain of the early 50's until they reunite to use their skills to solve criminal mysteries (It's generally better than it sounds).

The Imitation Game, written by Graham Moore and directed by Morten Tyldum, focuses on a real person involved in the herculean effort, the man whom many believe was the most significant figure in the cracking of the Enigma Code and limiting the duration of World War II.  Based on the book, Alan Turing:  The Enigma, The Imitation Game simplistically, if handsomely, distills the vast multi-national attempt to decrypt Nazi communication down to one Blentchly Park hut and the brilliant and troubled central figure of Alan Turing.

It seems a matter of fact that England attempted to recruit some its greatest minds to assail the 159,00,000 of coded possibilities produced by the Enigma machine.  Despite some strong acting at its core, The Imitation Game has drawn, alas, rather less accomplished practitioners to lead its effort.  Like the bombe - the electromagnetic code-breaking machine that is essentially a character in the film - labored over by Alan Turing in its early, frustrating iterations, The Imitation Game is like a pretty machine that spins and spins, producing almost nothing original or useful.  And it goes about its work with a rather loud and self-important thrum.

In the great tradition of war making strange bedfellows - the Manhattan Project was nothing if not a group of people who couldn't have normally gotten a government security clearance to construct an elaborate outhouse, much less an unfathomably destructive bomb - the English government and military recruited all sorts of dubious characters to work at code-breaking, among them chess players, academics, even women.  Desperate times.  Turing is one such oddball, summoned by Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), representative of the Royal Navy and the old guard.

Denniston clearly does not like the cut of Turing's jib, and is quick to remind him that he and his manly type won the last war.  Far more glory, apparently, for young men to be dispatched as cannon fodder than to sit about playing at puzzles all day.  For his part, Turing puts on a clinic in how not to interview for a job

     All right, Mr. Turing, I’ll bite. Why do you want to work for His Majesty’s government?

     Oh, I don’t, really.

     Are you a bleeding pacifist, Turing?

     I’m agnostic about violence.

     I believe you’ve just set a record for the shortest job interview in British military history.

     Mother says that I can be offputting sometimes. On account of being the best mathematician in the world.

But just as the splenetic Denniston is about to send him back to Cambridge, Turing surprises him by mentioning Enigma.  The mathematician knows what the government is trying to do at Bletchley and would like to put his puzzle-solving skills to work.  But, "Everyone thinks Enigma is unbreakable," says Denniston.  "Let me try and we'll know for sure," answers Turing. Such pith being the stuff of easily digestible biopics and their tidy trailers.

As drawn by screenwriter Graham Moore, this Turing seems a cobbled together genius, an English Beautiful Mind, detached from humanity, yet haunted by memories of a first love turned tragic, his homosexuality a secret he dare not reveal at a time and place when it was considered criminal behavior.  Under duress this Turing stammers, yet enunciates sonorously at other times, as with the voiceover that opens the film in which he would seem to be addressing both a police interrogator and the film's audience.  Not a completely unrealistic dichotomy, but Moore's main character runs too much to dramatic extremes.

That sonorous voice, of course, belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch.  He of the just now white-hot career, owing both to his much in demand film presence and the extremely popular and ongoing Sherlock, in which he is the 21st-century incarnation of Conan's Doyle's immortal detective (paired with another enviably busy actor, Martin Freeman, who plays Watson).  Chief among his fellow players, Cumberbatch is quite good, keeping the character and film grounded when writer and director are losing their heads about him.  The actor's sculpted visage seems to roll and toss from within, like a storm-troubled sea during the most stressful moments of The Imitation Game, without running (and director Tyldum certainly does have him run) to the ridiculous.  Cumberbatch keeps the film to a human and watchable scale even as Moore and Tyldum busy themselves with one pretty rhetorical flourish or another.

Frustrated with a lack of progress, Turing importunes Winston Churchill himself for additional funding and independence, to which the British prime minister favorably responds, making the unlikely Turing leader of Hut 14 at Bletchley.  His first order of business?  Sacking two of his colleagues whom he deems highly expendable:  "Keith and Charles.  You're both fired....You're mediocre linguists and positively poor code breakers."  "Popular at school, were you," the dry observation from Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong, cool and charismatic) of MI-6, a branch of British intelligence so secret that virtually no one is aware of its existence.

Even Turing is made to realize that he can't do all the work of solving Enigma on his brilliant own, so he solicits recruits via a newspaper advertisement in the form of a puzzle.  This brings into the handsome production design the even more attractive figure of Keira Knightley.  Ms. Knightley brings a typically fierce sort of humanity to her role as Joan Clarke, the reluctant code-breaker (Is this amy sort of work for a decent, single girl?  And how will she find a husband?), as well as an in the moment intelligence, the warm focus of which is consistent with the best of her work.  Slightly altered for her role in The Imitation Game is Knightley's English accent, truncated to such a degree at times that words would seem to be issued sideways from her in no way inadequate mouth.  When Turing explains to Joan that they are "...going to break an unbreakable Nazi code and win the war," her understated "Oh" of a response is a crisp, little wafer of a word.

The code-breaking proceeds fairly torturously, while director Tyldum occasionally cuts to shots of CGI destruction -  the war raging without, English lads dying, the continuous track of Nazi tanks ruthlessly crushing everything in their path, etc.  So slow is the progress, Turing's great machine, "Christopher," spinning, spinning to no effect, that the impatient Denniston finally bursts in with a few soldiers, determined to destroy the blasted waste of money and time.  It is at this critical juncture that Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and the rest of Turing's team back him, threatening to walk out if their leader is sacked.  

Quite a crowd pleasing turn of events, the team standing together, Denniston a great balloon of antiquated English pomposity, blown up with self regard so that he can be popped at the appropriate moment.  We had seen Turing nearly autistic (or at least in the realm of Asperger) in his misapprehension and lack of engagement with the people about him early on.  Alexander and the others are then brought slowly round by their leader's intelligence and determination, as well as his faltering attempts and comradery.  Those sometimes comical overtures are prompted by Joan's urging that "...they are not going to help you if they do not like you," every word of the admonishment carefully enunciated so that poor Turing might break the code of simple human communication.  

The Bletchley team pulling together, that satisfying arc of story, is easily telegraphed in a matter of seconds in the trailer for The Imitation Game.  And that's a good part of the problem here.  Turing's story and the larger narrative of the Enigma code and war are obviously rich with complexity.  While there is perhaps a need to boil all of those teeming narratives down to a lucid central story with a subplot or two, Graham Moore's screenplay seems warmed over from countless other thrillers and war films, badly spiced with implausibilities which make the whole even more difficult to swallow.  

Moore bookends his story with the 1952 arrest and prosecution of Turing for gross indecency.  Police first arrive to investigate a break in at his Manchester flat, later discovering that the burglar was a man that Turing had solicited for sex.  Alan Turing's unusual confession - beginning with that voiceover at the outset of the film - to the arresting officer, all of the wartime intrigue we see, is a flashback.

It seems extremely unlikely that Turing would have revealed everything about his work during the war, even to the police.  Those who worked at Bletchley were sworn to secrecy, prohibited from divulging the nature of the war-time work even to family members.  Even if we grant Moore his shaky framing device, so much of what follows is equally implausible or shrilly trumpeted to overly-eager audiences and award season voters.  

Unfortunately, director Morten Tyldum moves in heavy lockstep with his screenwriter.  Typical of this overheated union is a scene toward film's end, when news arrives that the war in Europe is at last over.  Menzies, the canny head of MI-6, informs the code-breaking team that every aspect of their work must be destroyed.  This quite consistent with an intelligence culture in Britain that didn't allow details of Ultra (their overall effort to decrypt enemy communications) to be made public until the 1970's.  However, the important work of destruction is left to the very people of whom the military establishment was so distrustful in the first place.  So Turing and the rest of his team are made to toss documentation and all else into kind of bonfire, which Tyldum films as a kind of wistful last night at camp.         

They've reduced my character to a dimwit?  Oh.  Keira Knightly
in The Imitation Game.
The Imitation Game seems rather pleased with its politics, both in terms of gender equality and discrimination based upon sexual orientation.  When Joan Clarke shows up late for her written examination, an MI-6 flunky informs her that "the secretaries are to head upstairs."  Only Turing's intercession allows his eventual friend to take a seat amongst the men.  Alan and Joan actually proceed beyond colleagues and friends to a couple briefly engaged to be married.  But when Turing learns that Menzies holds information that could send them both to prison (or worse), he urges Joan to leave Bletchley.  He first tries to break their engagement by revealing that he's gay, to which Joan responds almost nobly:  "I had my suspicions. I always did. But we’re not like other people. We love each other in our own way, and we can still live the life together that we want. You won’t be the perfect husband? I can promise you I harboured no intention of being the perfect wife." The bombshell having failed to produce the desired effect, Turing then tells her that he never cared about her and was simply stringing her along so they he could break Enigma.  Joan takes this flypaper-thin lie at face value.  The writer and director stretch this wispy material even farther for maximum effect, having Joan slap Alan and then exit dramatically, exclaiming, "They were right. John. Hugh. Peter. You really are a monster."  Intelligent, perceptive Joan thus rendered dense when it serves the dubious story.  

Moore's screenplay makes no secret of Alan Turing's homosexuality, much as the writer and director treat it almost hermetically.  The film spends virtually no time with any expression of Turing's sexual orientation, aside from chaste flashbacks of lonely school days brightened by a friendship and first love cut short by the death of Turing's beloved schoolmate.  Nonetheless, considerable space is given in closing titles that detail not only Alan Turing's unconscionable fate at the hands of British authorities (he had to choose chemical castration to avoid prison and died two years later of cyanide poisoning, which may or may not have been an act of suicide) but listing the number of men persecuted for homosexuality while it remained a crime in Great Britain.  Despite the fact that The Imitation Game has been lauded by the Human Rights Campaign for "...bringing the captivating yet tragic story of Alan Turing to the big screen," this is a film whose high-mindedness arrives late and largely in rhetorical form.  This allows filmmakers and audience alike to feel good about their moral outrage without having to deal the simplest expressions of that love they might find less palatable than most any act of violence on screen.  
Distributed in the United States by the Weinstein Company, the studio headed by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the former directors of Miramax Films, The Imitation Game is very much in the tradition of films financed and/or distributed by the two companies. Which is to say, a veneer of high culture, the marketing of film as art, but without any of the originality and daring that is inherent in real, vital art.  An act of dubious historical reduction and righteousness never quite earned, The Imitation Game is a carefully curated experience that can be all too neatly be reduced to its two and half minute trailer.

That coming attraction is also long enough to contain Mr. Moore's attempt at a signature line, "Sometime's it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things that no one can imagine"  Lest anyone miss that bit profundity delivered in a package of shoddy grammar, the line is uttered no less than three times in The Imitation Game, a film whose title is rather more apt than Morten Tyldum and Graham Moore probably intended.  Like the hapless code-breakers Keith and Charles, this writer and director should have been jettisoned early on in the very worthwhile effort to give Alan Turing's story a cinematic treatment worthy of its subject.  Instead, at a time when the lack of film with conviction and originality is growing quite dire, we get more pretty, self-satisfied complacency.  Or as Menzies says early The Imitation Game, "This war...we're not winning it."



Popular posts from this blog

Only Lovers Left Alive

"So this is your wilderness...Detroit."  So says Eve to Adam as they drive by night through the moribund Motor City in a white Jaguar.  Only Lovers Left Alive is not, as it happens, an update of the book of Genesis that Jim Jarmusch has overlaid onto the urban wasteland of Detroit.  The action Only Lovers Left Alive occurs by night, as Adam and Eve are vampires.  While they're not the primeval lovers of the Bible, the names do obviously carry significance.  Mr. Jarmusch's eleventh feature is an elegaic one, lamenting not only the tenuous existence of analog recording, lovely old guitars and other beautiful objects, but the looming loss of our very own paradise of a planet.

There would seem a certain inevitability in Detroit if you happen to be a vampire.  What better place to take up residence?  A city built for two million now now home 700,000. It is in significant ways -  figurative and quite literal - a city of night.  Former residential blocks now exist as open…

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three billboards with bold black letters in and an attention-grabbing orange field.  These the work of grieving mother Mildred Hayes, goading local Sheriff Bill Willoughby and his police force to show more initiative in solving the rape and murder of her daughter seven months earlier.

 Three films now for Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, each a kind of blazing billboard in its own right, full of provocation, contrivance, violence, heart and amusement.  Yes, all of that.  Audiences and critics have responded much more enthusiastically to the latest provocation of Mr. McDonagh than most of the residents of the fictional Ebbing, Missouri to those billboards of Mildred.  And yet, skepticism of the film seems even more justified than the disapproval of Ebbing for Mildred's roadside gesture; which is to say - what's the point? 

Accomplished both as a playwright and a filmmaker, Mr. McDonagh is, by his own acknowledgement, more comfortable in the role of the latter. …

The Paranoids

It's a recurring, if minor artistic theme:   the talented fuck-up languishes in obscurity while the glad-handing hack, inspired by if not blatantly ripping off the more talented one, enjoys success.   It was the conflict at the center of the documentary Dig, wth Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols taking on versions of those respective roles.  The theme is picked up by Argentine director Gabriel Medina in The Paranoids, but this moody film tends to meander in all but expected directions.   

The ability to enjoy The Paranoids rests, probably, in one's willingness to spend 90 minutes in the company of its main character, Luciano Gauna.   He occasionally ventures out  as a lavender-furred monster to  entertain children by day and struggles to complete a long-belabored screenplay by his near-perpetual night.   When it comes to the travails of a seemingly talented but underachieving man-child, I think I know several people who might say, "No tha…