Movie Review: The Imitation Game (2014)
“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of,” we’re told in this movie (three times), “who do the things that no one can imagine.”
Unfortunately, it’s the studios no one imagines anything of, who make the movies with no imagination.
I suspected as much going in but you hold out hope. I love Benedict Cumberbatch. I thought the story of Alan Turing (Enigma code? And computers? And gay?) was ripe for a great movie. Plus I liked the opening. It’s Turing’s voice talking to an unspecified you, which, under the circumstances, might as well be us. In fact, it’s partly us, but it’s mostly someone else:
Are you paying attention? Good. If you’re not listening carefully, you will miss things. Important things.
I sat up straighter after that, ready to hear important things. Then deflated for the next two hours.
Did the trailer give too much away? Were the conflicts too facile? Was everyone typecast? Were more interesting aspects of Turing’s life left out? All of the above?
All of the above.
159 million million million Turing fans can’t be wrong
The movie is split into three time periods.
It begins in Cambridge, 1951, where Det. Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) is investigating a burglary in the apartment of Prof. Alan Turing (Cumberbatch), who abruptly dismisses him like a lesser life form. Nock gets curious and investigates the man, hoping to find one of those Cambridge Soviet spies he’s been reading about. Instead he finds, in the words of a fellow officer, a poofter. It’s actually Det. Nock that Turing is addressing during the opening monologue. In the interrogation room, Turing, for some reason, suggests a kind of Turing test—man or machine?—with Nock as judge.
The brunt of the movie takes place during the World War II years, when Turing, a math genius who has already invented the universal machine—a forerunner to the store computer program—is summoned, along with other math/chess geniuses, to break the German’s supposedly unbreakable cipher machine, Enigma, which is reset every day, and which, every day, has 159 million-million-million (or 159,000,000,000,000,000,000) possible combinations.
For some reason, the others, including the dashing Hugh (Matthew Goode) and the diplomatic John Cairncross (Allen Leech, Tom of “Downton Abbey”), who should know the odds, actually try to break the code every day, and they actually get angry at Turing for spending all his time developing an infernal machine. They also get angry at him because he’s a bit of a machine himself. He’s uncommunicative and overly literal. Implications in human conversations are lost on him. He doesn’t realize, for example, that “Alan, we’re going to lunch,” is an invitation to come along.
Feeling pressure from colleagues and superiors, who object to costs, Alan writes Churchill, takes over from Hugh as head of the group, fires two men, hires two more. Well, one man and one woman. Enter Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke and the dullest of subplots. First, the men won’t let her test because she’s a woman. Then her parents won’t let her come because she’s a woman and would be surrounded by men. Then, even after she realizes the importance of the project, she’s about to return to them because she’s 25 and unmarried. So Turing proposes. He feigns love, which she believes.
Meanwhile, Turing makes enemies of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance of “Game of Thrones,” who could play the role in his sleep), makes an ally of MI6’s Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong, ditto), and more or less confesses his homosexuality out of the blue to John, who has his own agenda. (He’s a Soviet spy.) Meanwhile, Turing’s machine, nicknamed “Christopher,” sputters, works, but still can’t break the Enigma code. They’re a day from getting the plug pulled when he hits upon the obvious: Have it search for certain phrases, such as “Heil” and “Hitler.”
Fake fake fake
So the initial drama was to get the team to work together; then it became to make the machine work. Now? Now it’s how to use the information so the Germans won’t get suspicious that Enigma has been broken.
The movie makes it seem this was Turing’s call—he allows the brother of a codebreaker to die, for example, and is called a monster for it, even though we know it’s all horrible but logical—and I didn’t buy any of it. Surely it was someone else’s call. Churchill’s, most likely. But Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”), and newbie screenwriter Graham Moore (not much), keep it insular, uninteresting, and unbelievable.
They keep doing this. Throughout the World War II years, we get flashbacks to 1928 and a young Alan at prep school, being bullied, and meeting the love of his life, named, of course, Christopher, who dies of TB in 1930. That’s the big secret. Alan isn’t just trying to win the war; he’s trying to resurrect his lost love. It’s supposed to be his Rosebud, but it has nowhere near the Wellesian impact. It not only feels untrue, it is untrue. Via Slate:
Additionally, Turing did not call any of the early computers he worked on “Christopher”—that is a dramatic flourish invented by screenwriter Graham Moore.
All the things that feel untrue in the movie? Turing’s Sherlockian propensities? The battle for control among the scientists? The big blow-up with Clarke, where she calls him a monster? Invented dramas that feel invented.
Ditto the final scene between Turing and Det. Nock in the interrogation room. It’s supposed to play like the final scene between Salieri and the priest in “Amadeus” but, again, it’s flat. After telling his tale, Turing asks the Turing-test questions: Am I man? A machine? A hero? A criminal? Nock looks devastated, for reasons I can’t fathom, and croaks out, “I can’t judge you.” Because he’s realizes this poofter is a hero who shortened the war by two years? And saved millions of lives? And maybe all of Britain with its mountains green? So why not make Nock more homophobic at the outset? Or something? To give it meaning? Particularly if you’ve invented him in the first place?
It’s sad that “The Imitation Game” relies upon such weak-tea imitations as this. It’s sad that we feel the need to dumb down the stories of our most brilliant men.