Alan Turing's life story is unequivocally a tragedy. The Imitation Game, a new biopic that focuses on his accomplishments as a codebreaker during World War II, manages to recognize this while celebrating his formidable legacy.
The film tells an important story. Turing, a mathematician, is considered the father of computer science and a pioneer of artificial intelligence. That alone would merit his continued recognition as a great thinker. But he also played a crucial role in World War II—so much so that Winston Churchill said Turing made the most important contribution to winning the war. He was a war hero. Perhaps the biggest war hero.
During the war, the Axis forces had no better weapon than their Enigma machines, cryptographic marvels the Nazis thought were impossible to crack. Turing and other Allied codebreakers thought differently, and built a machine to break the code. This allowed Allied forces to intercept Axis communications, enabling access to information that ultimately helped the Allied forces defeat the enemy.
The film primarily focuses on Turing's time at Bletchley Park's Hut 8. Using a police officer's investigation into Turing in 1951 as a framing device, the story is told largely in flashbacks. The film follows Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, as he antagonizes and bonds with his fellow codebreakers—particularly Joan Clark, the team's brilliant, lone female member (portrayed by Keira Knightley in a subtle, unshowy performance), to whom he was briefly engaged. In the movie, as in life, Turing called off the engagement after he told her he was gay.
The Imitation Game is a good movie, but not a great one: While the actors turn in solid performances, the screenwriting relies too much on the trope of the tortured, misunderstood genius vs. the world, and the historical footage of the war seems awkwardly crammed in to make you remember that, oh shit, U-Boats were scary.
In fact, The Imitation Game is really a few different movies at once: It's a spy caper, a race-against-the-clock film, a celebration of eccentricity, and an indictment of Britain's shoddy treatment of one of her heroes. The framing device was distracting, since it asks us to imagine that Turing would confess his highly classified role to a random police officer.
And the flashbacks to Turing's formative schoolboy relationship border on schmaltzy. Though they do serve to humanize the character, they wouldn't have been necessary if the script gave Turing a more nuanced characterization. Some of his lines sound like it's just Sheldon from Big Bang Theory talking, although Cumberbatch saves much of the material from getting too paint-by-numbers-nerd.
Despite the tremendous debt Britain owes him, Turing died a convicted felon. He committed suicide at age 42, two years after his arrest for "gross indecency" after being exposed as a homosexual. He was unable to continue working with the government, and was forced to choose between chemical castration and prison, and chose castration. The man whose work helped save Britain was treated monstrously, just for being who he was.
The film touches on the tragic ending to Turing's life as the film closes, as well as the way his reputation has been (thankfully) restored in recent years. It notes that he was eventually granted a posthumous royal pardon last year. I'd be surprised if you didn't leave the theater after seeing it without agreeing with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown's apology to the (long-dead) Turing in 2009: "We're sorry. You deserved so much better."
I saw The Imitation Game at the Toronto International Film Festival, but it will have a limited wide release November 21. So spend Thanksgiving this year being thankful Alan Turing existed.
Image via Black Bear Pictures