Monday, December 29, 2014

The Imitation Game

Alternate Title:  A Very Queer Man

One sentence synopsis:    Alan Turing works at Bletchley Park in an effort to break the German Enigma code while endeavoring to conceal his homosexuality during WWII.

Things Havoc liked:In 1954, Alan Turing, one of the great pioneers of computer technology, was murdered by the British government, insofar as the medication the government had forced him to take to repress his homosexuality drove him to commit suicide. In doing this, the British government acted no differently than any other government on the Earth at the time (and a good many today), but the event, atoned for only long after the fact by people not alive at the time it occurred, was nonetheless a terrible crime committed against one of Britain's greatest unsung heroes. Of course Hollywood cannot resist a good story with good liberal political overtones, so at the very least we have The Imitation Game, a biographical film of the great Sir Alan, one of the strangest British persons of all time, and portrayed by one of the strangest British persons alive today, Benedict Cumberbatch.

I kid, I kid. Cumberbatch, one of the outstanding actors I have discovered over the course of this project, only appears weird because of the weird people whom he periodically chooses to play, a lineup that has varied in only the short time I've been doing this from a homosexual spy to a spineless Nebraskan wimp, to Julian Assange, to a dragon, to Khan. And now he plays Alan Turing, who according to this movie was not simply gay but also possibly the most awkward person in British history, which is a statement and a half for those of you who've never met an Englishman. Turing was, after all, a certified genius, and if Hollywood has taught me anything, it's that certified geniuses are always irascible bastards, barely able to interact with their fellow human beings, forever locked out of the world by their tremendous gifts which none others share. But this is Benedict Cumberbatch, a man I've seen people compare unironically to Lawrence Olivier, which means when things get awkward, they get Shakespearianly awkward. An early sequence in the film where the newly-arrived Turing persists in taking every question that his colleagues ask him as to whether he wants to get some lunch absolutely literally is almost hard to watch, as is a later moment when, in an effort to warm up to the self-same colleagues, he tells possibly the worst joke in the world. The rest is all standard House-style material, in which he unthinkingly dismisses everyone around him as uneducated clods who will only interrupt his research, unable to understand why this would annoy anyone. This would not work from a lesser actor, as this character would be so annoying to the audience that we would reject him entirely. Cumberbatch is not a lesser actor.

Neither are most of his co-stars. I go back and forth on what I think of Keira Knightly, as she has had the misfortune of making her career out of the decent-to-awful Pirates of the Caribbean series of Gore Verbinski films, and yet I don't have the same level of antipathy for her that I do for someone like, say, Jennifer Garner. Here she plays Joan Clarke MBE, a fellow codebreaker at Bletchley Park, whose role in the film, contrary to my concerned expectations from the trailer, is not actually to insert a straight romance into a story about a gay man, but actually drawn almost entirely from reality. A skilled cryptologist and numismatist, Clarke also served, for a time at least, as Turing's "beard", arranging an engagement with him that would permit him to maintain the fiction of being straight, and her the fiction of being "properly" respectable. Knightly does a credible job with the material she's given, and while I had questioned the purpose of her character, it appears in this case that I should have done more research, as the filmmakers knew more about the subject than I did.

The rest of the cast poses no difficulties. Mark Strong is a pimp, as is Charles Dance, and an opportunity to see both of them work is always welcome. Strong plays legendary SIS/MI6-chief Stewart Menzies, one of Turing's biggest backers, and one of the few to recognize the true potential of Enigma's scope for snooping and influencing events. Strong more or less plays the character like he might James Bond, but I can hardly fault that. Dance meanwhile brings all his Tywin Lannister gravitas to the role of Colonel Alastair Denniston, portraying him like the only adult in a room full of man-children (which is not all that far from the truth). Watchmen's Matthew Goode, finally finding a role he isn't awful in, manages to play a fairly difficult role in the form of Hugh Alexander, a fellow codebreaker who has the unenviable task of having to find a way to warm up to an intensely unlikeable Turing. Midway through the film, Goode manages to defuse a scene which could have been nauseatingly coy, one I was dreading from the trailers, where all of Turing's compatriots stand up for him to the accompaniment of swelling music. He does this by shifting the focus from Turing's likeability to his evident genius, admitting, reluctantly, that he does stand the best chance of anyone of actually defeating Enigma.

Things Havoc disliked: It's a history film. You knew this was coming.

I don't demand absolute historical fidelity in my historical movies. One of my favorite films is Gladiator, after all, a movie that has about as much to do with the actual history of the 2nd century Roman Empire as Iron Skies has to do with WWII. What I demand is that the movie respect the history it is about enough to present a credible version, and The Imitation Game does not. Yes, it's true that one of the major advantages unlocked by the ULTRA project was the ability to find German U-boats, but U-boats simply did not operate the way they are shown in this film, with a dense mass of them forming up like a school of fish before hurling sixty-odd torpedoes at their blissfully ignorant targets. That alone would be forgivable if it weren't for the fact that, having decoded Enigma, Turing and his band of merry mathematicians then find themselves having to decide whether or not to warn a convoy of British ships that they are about to be attacked, weighing the odds that such an action might lead the Germans to discover that Enigma has been broken. Much pathos and drama are wrung from these decisions, as, of course, one of the codebreakers' brother is on the convoy and will die if warning is not given...

Um... bullshit. Granted, this whole scenario is partly based on reality, likely a reference to the famous "Coventry Question" that Winston Churchill supposedly faced during the Blitz (wherein he is rumored to have allowed the Germans to erase Coventry so as to preserve British anti-bomber intelligence sources). But the whole point there is that Churchill, or at the very least his war cabinet, was the one to make these decisions, not a half-dozen anti-social mathematicians locked up in a manor in Buckinghamshire. The movie tries to turn this entire incident into some kind of "god complex" absurdity involving Turing, a kind of "how far will you let the cold mathematics take you" thing. And when Turing, of course, decides to preserve the secret (unilaterally it appears), the result appears to be the destruction of half the Royal Navy, as battleships and aircraft carriers are sent to the bottom in their dozens. I must have missed that part of the war histories somewhere.

The rest of the film is equally historically mishandled, and once again for no reason at all. That Turing had no actual interaction with MI6 during the war I don't mind. Any excuse to see more of Mark Strong is worth making. But the film goes so far as to have Turing dealing with Soviet spies from the ring of Philby and MacLean, and passing secret messages through MI6 for Soviet consumption, circumventing Churchill along the way. This isn't history, it's pulp fiction, which is fine in a pulp movie, but not in a sombre historical biopic. Alan Turing was a great man and a towering figure of the cryptological war, to say nothing of the father of modern computers. It is unnecessary to further turn him into George Smiley.

Final thoughts:   I know most people don't share my obsessions with the minutiae of history, but this is not just the ramblings of an angry fanboy upset that someone forgot to conjugate elvish correctly. By trying to turn Turing into something he was manifestly not, it undermines the question of who he actually was, which presumably was the entire point of making a biopic about him in the first place. I won't pretend this "ruins the movie" or something, for it does not, as Cumberbatch's performance is excellent, and I do enjoy seeing these actors act at one another. I just wish that the filmmakers had some faith in the story they had in front of them rather than the one they made up from whole cloth.

After all, if they were going to do that much, why not make a movie wherein Alan Turing was the leader of a renegade faction of the Illuminati, assassinated in his prime for daring to break humanity free of the static reality around them and enable them to use information technology to reach for the metaphysical stars? I'd certainly go see it.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  The last chapter of the greatest fantasy ever told.

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