The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game


Howard Adelman

The Imitation Game won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) in 2014. I missed seeing it there. When we were in Victoria, the film arrived in movie houses the week after we left. The movie was unavailable in Mexico, but we did watch the Oscars and noted that the movie was nominated in eight categories for best motion picture, best leading actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), best supporting actress (Keira Knightley), direction, music score, editing and production design. It won one Oscar for Graham Moore’s best adaptation as a screenplay I thought the brilliant musical score by Alexandre Desplat that interweaves gravity with suspense should have won. Desplat did win, but for The Grand Budapest Hotel. To add to our frustration, the movie was no longer on screens in Victoria when we returned. Finally, last evening we had a breather and rented the film on Netflix.

What a terrific movie! A spy thriller without the chase, with very little about betrayal, but an enormous overload about secrecy and deception, the movie was as engaging as any action suspense film. It was not a complicated symbolic allegory in the guise of a comic thriller like one of my favourite all-time films, North by Northwest, but a straightforward moral parable. One moral – respect differences. Simple and almost trite, the message was in your face for the line was repeated three times: “Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one imagines.” Those differences include brilliance, homosexuality, and even misogyny in the name of decorous behaviour.

The latter was expressed in the role of Joan Clarke played with consummate skill by Keira Knightley. The moral includes defying prejudice based on gender. “I’m a woman in a man’s job. I don’t have the luxury of being an ass,” declares Joan Clarke to Alan Turing’s astonishment, an individual who is brilliant but also both arrogant and socially awkward, characteristics often twinned in mass perceptions of genius and carried off with consummate skill in the interpretation of the lead character played magnificently by Benedict Cumberbatch. He speaks sometimes with pursed and at other times with furled lips. He carries his body with slightly hunched shoulders and arms held closely to his sides. So his body language conveys both repression and a passion for expression just waiting to explode as in the scene played, not by Cumberbatch, but by Alex Lawther portraying Turing as a young man when he first hears of his friend Christopher’s death over the school holidays and is adamant in denying that they were close friends.

Thus a movie about unveiling secrets begins with a suave secret service intelligence chief (Mark Strong) lurking in the wings supporting the application of Alan Turing to work at Bletchley’s Park’s code-breaking unit in the famous Hut 8 and running interference for Turing in his dealings with his rule and proper order and discipline commandant, Commander Denniston, played incidentally as a terrific caricature by Charles Dance. Secrets abound and overflow in the movie. The enterprise at Bletchley Park was so secret according to the film that no one knew about the intelligence operation until fifty years later – sheer nonsense of course. In the creative area alone, excluding scholarship, Hugh Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code was produced in 1986, and that play was based on earlier released or uncovered information about code-breaking at Bletchley Park; Sekret Enigmy, a Polish film, came out in 1979. The film was full of many more secrets: the German secret codes that the British were trying to decrypt, Alan Turing’s homosexuality, the presence of a Soviet spy among those working on the decoding effort, Alan Turing’s deep love for his friend at his private school when he was a schoolboy, and on and on.

What is not so secret is that this biopic using real events is but a parable with less rather than more imitation of what historically took place. However, it has wonderful characteristics as a superb parable – simple, straightforward and, also, utterly wrong when tested with actual particulars. Though an adult parable based on history, one set of events focuses on a group of brilliant British mathematicians gathered at Bletchley Park in Great Britain to break the enigma code during WWII. They did it. Breaking the code played a significant role in winning the war. In the parable, these geniuses did so by themselves, even inventing a machine to do the job called initially the Turing machine and subsequently a computer and even building the machine themselves though initially Turing does the construction by himself. Actually, Gordon Welchman built the machine.

Further, they allegedly not only invented the computer and built it, but invented the system for keeping their discovery a secret. The movie suggests that these geniuses had the fortitude and stiff upper lip to allow some of their fellow Brits, including a brother of one of the team members, to be killed by the Germans lest the fact reach the Germans that the allies could read all the German signals intelligence sent via enigma through the rest of the war. By hard-headed withholding their information for a time, they saved countless more lives over the long run.

This provides the second moral message of the film to counter-balance the first. It focuses on the leader of the team, Alan Turing. Instead of insisting on sensitivity and respect for differences, the second moral demanded hard heartedness in order to produce better results – self-preservation or more lives saved over the long run or, in the case of one interpersonal scene, a better quality of life for another whom one loved in one’s own way. That moral was in keeping with Alan Turing’s alleged response in private school described above when he learned that his best friend at school, Christopher, had died and he refused to admit that Christopher was his close friend. The lesson he had learned when he was being bullied and entombed under floorboards at school was that if you prevented the bully from getting any satisfaction from your suffering, that is, if you keep your suffering secret, the motivation of the bully would be undermined. Carry a stiff upper lip as a top British value is celebrated in this film at the same time as the British state is heavily criticized for its anti-homosexual laws and punishments. Tolerance and self-repression can be celebrated as twins for, in a parable, there is no need to sort out contradictions.

The title of the film, The Imitation Game, was a phrase Alan Turing used for a test to see whether machines could imitate, not human minds, but a certain part of the mind dealing with reasoning, what he and we now call artificial intelligence, though it is no more artificial than our human reasoning. The paradox, however, was that in order to make a machine that imitated human reasoning one needed to use creative artifice in the first place to create the machine. The Imitation Game also had a second meaning in the film. Alan Turing was a man capable of stupendous decrypting of complicated codes but seemingly incapable of decoding ordinary human discourse and modes of social interaction. He was both a homosexual and an odd duck. Alan had to learn to imitate ordinary human behaviour to get by in the world. Thus, Joan Clarke allegedly teaches him to engage in ordinary human games by bringing his fellow workers – quite awkwardly at first – a present of apples, a scarce commodity in war time Britain.

The second set of events focused on Alan Turing’s personal life both before the war when he was attending a private school at what we would call the secondary level. Snippets of his past were interwoven through the film along with Alan Turing’s arrest in 1952 after the war for being a poof – a homosexual in British slang. The investigation of his possibility of being a spy was set off by a break-in of his apartment by his on-and-off lover, Arnold Murray, but the break-in is left as a random mysterious event. He was caught in the act and, given the unjust laws at the time that made homosexual practices illegal, he was sentenced to two years in prison or, alternatively, a regimen of drugs intended to kill his libido – chemical castration. He chose the latter, but the movie suggests that the medical regimen also began to destroy his mind. He did not have enough of a stiff upper lip to endure being separated from his thinking machine, which he had named Christopher. Two years after he was arrested, he committed suicide.

There is a third level of imitation going on. The film is ostensibly a biopic of Alan Turing as well as the story of the invention of the nascent computer. The imitation in both cases is helped by interspersing real scenes of suffering and destruction from WWII news stories to reinforce verisimilitude and build up the importance and the degree of risk to both Britain and its citizens if the enigma codes were not broken. But The Imitation Game is an enjoyable artifice and only uses the outline from reality to gain a sense of verisimilitude as the movie is structured as a parable, though in virtually anthropomorphizing the Turing machine, the parable almost becomes a fable in which an inanimate object is made into a human figure as in a Star Wars episode.

I do not believe I am breaking the reviewer’s code by giving away secrets revealed as the film unfolds because the interpretation of Alan Turing’s life and the events at Bletchley Park are taken to be widely known. Even if they were not, most viewers who would love this movie have already seen it. Further, the revelations do nothing to undermine our interest as the narrative unfolds. But one secret that is never really explained is why the film had to be a parable in the form of a summer romance set in the darkest days of British history rather than a more realistic biopic.

Let me deal with the summer romance first. This is a story of unrequited love between a gay man, Alan Turing, and his brilliant mathematical partner, Joan Clarke. As a summer romance, it had to star a complete innocent who emerges into his teens as retaining that youthful innocence in the face of inexplicable and arbitrary cruelty, but soon learns to hide his true feelings and identity. In the process of maturation, he grasps the vision of creating an ideal, a universal thinking machine that can be programmed to break the most complicated codes, a dream that perfectly matches the needs of Britain at the time. However, to realize his vision, he has to counter and fight against a system that resists his creativity, including his own partners in the project. But, in the end, we have an idyll and a reflection and acknowledgement of true genius and, more particularly, the role of Alan Turing in creating victory for the British people. Finally and most surreptitiously, the film envisions as an ideal, a society is which there can be complete harmony if there were as much understanding as an intelligence machine without the repression brought about by inherited prejudices and repression.

One of the advantages I had as a graduate student was sitting in on a graduate course by Northrop Frye in which I learned of a summer romance as a form of mythos. Frye stressed the archetypal characteristics of this form in which The Imitation Game fits almost perfectly. What Frye left out in his focus on the architectonics of fiction construction was the distortion of reality necessary to accomplish such a creation. I have come to believe that such distortion or, more bluntly, repression of the truth, is almost a necessary ingredient to the art form. Knowing that secret allows one to enjoy the film enormously without being too upset by the deformation of history. And there are many, beginning with the Platonic love affair between Turing and Clarke.

Look at the enormous number of distortions and misrepresentations of history in the movie:

  • The members of the intelligence team in the film are made up of a typical collective for a film – Matthew Goode playing the caddish chess grandmaster, Hugh Alexander, who finally comes to recognize Turing’s genius after first resisting his solitary efforts, John Cairncross as the easy-going Soviet spy, Alan Leech, with a friendly manner and a Scottish burr, and, most importantly, the charming, cheerful and wise beyond her years and ever loyal and warm self-sacrificing friend and true love at a far deeper level than sexual attraction, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. However, there is no effort to represent the team that actually figured out how to decrypt enigma. That team included several women and the man who actually built the machine who is not even included in the film
  • The Bletchley Park team was not the first to break the enigma code, a process started well before WWII
  • There were other code-breaking teams and the allies had their own system of codes as was wonderfully explored in the movie, A Man Called  Intrepid, the story of the Canadian super-spy, William Stephenson, accurately retold in Bill Macdonald’s account in his 1998 book, The True Intrepid
  • Turing, in spite of his genius, or perhaps because of it, was never put in charge
  • Using puzzle-solving expertise to recruit additional members of the team was a cute device, but this never happened
  • The Bomba made at Bletchley Park was not constructed by Turing by himself using wires and parts he had ordered, but was constructed by British manufacturers who supplied the parts that were assembled by a technical genius who was part of the team, Gordon Welchman, not by Turing
  • The invention of the “eureka” moment in the bar when the insight comes to Turing that if he paid attention just to a repeated syllable instead of the whole message, the breakthrough in decrypting messages would come almost as fast as that eureka moment; in truth, there was no such eureka moment since this was known from the start
  • There was no deadline or extension of deadlines by the bosses at Bletchley Park in reality, but the delay was used to great effect in creating suspense in the movie
  • The film leads one to believe that Turing invented the machine used for cryptography, though Alan Turing in an almost stage whisper in the movie lets the secret out that it was the Poles who originally created the idea of such a machine; Marian Rejewski and a group of his fellow Polish mathematicians had been breaking enigma codes for five or six years before the war even started
  • In reality, early versions of enigma, commercially available, were around since shortly after the first world war
  • The Polish Cipher Bureau led by the mathematician and cryptologist, Marian Rejewski, along with Jerzy Róžycki and Henryk Zygalski, created the first system of decoding enigma machines by using the principle of imitation and re-creating a reverse machine to invert the enigma process
  • The Poles even built the first machine to break codes, “the bomba”, in the year I was born in 1938, so that Turing, however great a pioneer, was not the first on the block and did not claim to be so
  • Denniston was not initially an obstreperous and condescending commander for he was the head of the British military unit that first received the Poles when they handed over their “bomba” to the British when the war began
  • After the war started, the real difficulty in decoding began with the most recent version of the enigma machines, ironically used first by the German admiralty which was actually the centre of opposition to Hitler. Their use of an enigma machine was programmed to change codes every twenty-four hours, a fact certainly stressed in the movie, but without explaining how it worked or its importance, and simply stressing that the decoders would require a machine even more than before to do the decoding. In the film, the team only gradually comes to that realization in the second year of working together; the new innovation allowed the machine on its own through repeated changes in the electrical path via a scrambler to create a variable alphabetic substitution cipher so that each key depression actually changed the electrical pathway of a message
  • The working of the machine was never explained in the movie, perhaps because such an explanation might detract from the parable, but may also have been left out to keep the audience entranced and puzzled by the plugboard, entry wheel, rotors, reflector as well as electrical contraction pins and electrical contacts that together made up the alphabet; when the rotors stepped by one twenty-sixth each time, changing the substitution alphabet at each turn, as you add rotors or increase notches, the probability of deciphering declines enormously
  • The movie refers to the 150 million millionth chance of decoding; in fact, Enigma has 158,962,555,217,826,360,000 (almost 159 quintillion) different settings
  • The creation of “Ultra,” the decoding system, as well as the entire system of spies and counter-spies, theft of code tables and other machines, German procedural flaws and failure to use random start positions by German operators, and operator errors alluded to were critical, but none as ludicrous and incredulous as the simplistic one used in the movie
  • Alan Turing did not surreptitiously on his own get his secret service handler to deliver a personal letter to Churchill pleading for the money to build the machine, but was brought on board specifically for that purpose with funding already in place, the effort initially supported by Commander Denniston
  • When Denniston had become too obstreperous, the letter sent to Churchill in 1941 was co-signed by all the senior code-breakers on the team, including Gordon Welchman, Stuart Milner-Barry and Hugh Alexander
  • The issue was neither the idea of the machine nor the funds to build it, but a critical shortage of staff and more funding for additional parts
  • As a response to that shortage, Cairncross, the Soviet spy, became part of the team only in 1942
  • The idea that the decoding team was charged with or even had the capability of working out the plans and strategies of a U-boat attack on a convoy was simply balderdash
  • Neither Turing nor his team worked out how to use the information strategically to both hide their discovery and maximize its effectiveness
  • The scene of the team burning their papers at the end of the war and ordered to do so by the secret service makes a great orgiastic colourful ending to the process, but such an action was both illegal and took credulity over Niagara Falls
  • The structure of the film using a detective who suspected Turing was a Soviet spy and inadvertently discovered he was a closet gay after his arrest in 1952 and then becomes the cipher to whom Turing told his whole tale is both unbelievable and pure nonsense, but as a parable, it works

I loved the movie as a superb parable, well told and brilliantly acted, but it was far off the mark in imitating and representing history.


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