Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Imitation Game, A Movie Review

Just back from seeing the Alan Turing bio-pic/Weinstein Company Oscar bid The Imitation Game. With Benedict Cumberbatch in the starring role, and chronicling the birth of the computer age, this should be a better movie than it is.

Part of the reason it is such a mess is because it is trying to do so many things at once, and manages to do none of them very well. The movie establishes a few salient points of Turing's life, while simultaneously attempting to cover a host of other issues, including but not limited to:

  • Turing's theories about computing,
  • how to break codes, 
  • why breaking the Enigma code was important to the British war effort, 
  • how the code was broken, 
  • what the modern world owes to Turing's eccentric mind, 
  • how that mind worked, 
  • the emotional stakes involved in war work, 
  • the strain of being a lonely genius, 
  • the homophobia that forced him to live his life in hiding and that ultimately killed him, 
  • the seeds of the Cold War planted during World War II, 
  • the sexism rife in the 1940s, 
  • the evolving nature of WWII intelligence work, 
  • the role of M6, 
  • the conflict between logic and emotion, 
  • the nature of human social relations, 
  • bullying in boy's schools of the 1920s, 
  • the nature of violence, 
  • the effect of the Battle of Britain on civilians. . .

All with a running time of under two hours. You can see the problem. Furthermore, the movie skips around in three different time periods, which was maybe not such a useful structure. Shall we dive in?

(By this point, I have lost track of exactly how the movie skips through time, and in what order.  For clarity's sake, I am going to just summarize each time period. Let's finish out 1951, even if that does take us to the end of the movie before we even get to the middle.)

The movie opens in 1951, when some cops arrive at Alan Turing's home in Manchester in response to a neighbor's report of a burglary. Turing is bent over amid the mess, sweeping up a fine powder which he identifies as cyanide. Somehow, the police know that nothing has been stolen, but they want Turing to file a report anyway, which he declines to do. Apparently the crime rate in Manchester in 1951 was sufficiently low that the police didn't have enough to do: Detective Nock decides that "Professor Turing is hiding something" and he decides to pry into the professor's war records.

Now all of this is rather telling, if you are already familiar with the broad outlines of Turing's life. In that case, you realize that his war record is stellar, but he's hiding his homosexuality. The "burglary" was committed by a young male prostitute who Turing knew. The cyanide is a foreshadowing of Turing's eventual suicide by cyanide, widely presumed to have been staged to look like an accident to spare his mother's feelings. If you don't already know these things, well, too bad, because the movie isn't really going to explain most of them.

(There is also a very James Bond looking moment where a shadowy official-looking figure is handed a note that says "Alan Turing's home was burgled." It looks ominous, but might not be? No--we aren't ever going to have this explained either. )

Detective Nock is using correction fluid to alter some document. Remember correction fluid? Oh, those Olde Tymes! Apparently, this clumsy forgery fools the staff of an unidentified depository, where he is asking to look at Turing's classified war records. What he gets--eventually--is an empty envelope. Which he takes to mean that Turing is a Soviet spy.

Okay, let's just stop here for a moment, because I have some questions that the movie neither asks nor answers. First of all--if the War Secrets Act forbids Turing from ever talking about his work at Bletchley Park (and that information was classified for some 50 years after the war), don't you think somebody would have looked at a letter with a big glob of Wite-Out on it and maybe. . .raised some questions? Confronted the guy with trying to illicitly obtain War Secrets? Maybe had him arrested? Or, are we supposed to think that this is an Especially Clever Detective who has fooled the British Military establishment?

Alternatively, are we to think that the military was not fooled by the "Wite-Out Stratagem" and rather than confronting the guy, simply gave him an empty envelope? And he wasn't smart enough to figure that out either? I don't know. And as the movie progresses, we don't get any answers to that either.

What does happen is that while Nock is apparently dreaming that he's about to bring down a Soviet spy ring, the constables find Turing's burglar, who discloses that Turing is "a pouf." Homosexuality is illegal, so they issue a warrant and arrest him. Nock is appalled, and says so. "That's not the investigation I was running!" But a crime is a crime, so Nock asks to be the one who interrogates Turing.

So now this Detective Nock is the audience surrogate? He talks to Turing, and elicits the story we see on screen? I mean, the movie actually does start with a voice over, and there is some confusing dialogue where Turing invites the detective to "play" the imitation game, by asking questions.* So it seems that in some version of this movie, Detective Nock was the framing device, but that more or less got revised and muddled, because significant swaths of the story don't seem like they would be at all relevant to either the investigation into his homosexuality, the burglary, spying, or the Turing Test. Why would he go into detail about his 1928 school days to a cop? (Why are we watching those scenes either?)
*I assume this is what might be better known as the "Turing Test"--a thought experiment where a person poses questions to unseen participants. A computer can be said to beat the Turing test if the questioner can't tell the computer's answers from a human's. Not sure how the detective can play this game when face to face with Turing, but that's yet another thing the movie fails to address.

Anyway, the framing device doesn't really make sense, and the detective fails to create any sense of audience identification. He's a mook, who starts poking around in Turing's life for no clear reason, violates War Secrets acts, gets the whole story of Turing's (classified, remember?) war service that he doesn't have clearance to hear.

I wonder if somebody realized this? But maybe only in, like, post-production? "Hey--the way we set this up, both Turing and Nock should be hanged as traitors. Can we maybe do something about that?" "Well, we can't get Cumberbatch back for reshoots, so we'll just mess up the timeline and maybe nobody will notice?"

So, let's skip to the meatiest part of the film, the Bletchley Park years.

Turing applies to work at Bletchley Park. He tells us he's currently 27, although he looks basically the same as he did in 1951, plus he's still got the same (stupid) haircut. He's being interviewed by a high ranking military officer who is played by Charles Dance. If you primarily know Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones, you might be surprised at how funny he can be. The scene starts out as nearly a cross-talk vaudeville routine, riffing on Turing's inability to recognize a joke or sarcasm. In an exposition dump that is pretty well disguised by the humor, we learn that Turing is a math prodigy, he solves puzzles, he wants to break the Enigma code because it is the worlds hardest puzzle, and he doesn't do well with authority. There is a reference to "Mother says I'm off-putting." Again, if you know about his "accidental suicide" the reference to his mother is telling. Otherwise, it merely makes him seem extraordinarily odd and a-social. So, mission accomplished I guess.

Weirdly, the Big Initiative to Break the German Codes has. . .a total of 6 guys? There seems to be a lot of activity in the area, and lots of secretaries and transcriptionists, but only six guys who are trying to actually break the codes? And their equipment seems to be pencils? We know they have an actual Enigma machine, because that's the first thing they see. Why not just put the intercepted messages through the machine, one of them asks. You need to have the password, and there are "159 million million million" possible combinations. "That's 159 with eighteen zeroes behind it." We are also told that the Germans change their password at midnight every day, and the first messages go out at 6 a.m. They do have one decoded message (from where? Oh, silly audience, why would the movie answer that?) and it's a weather report.

So five of the guys sit around, write things on a black board and go out for sandwiches. It is not clear what strategy--if any--they have for breaking codes. Meanwhile, Turing invents a machine with 108 rotating dials that he intends to use to churn through all the possible combinations mechanically. (This is the first computer ever built. Turing names it "Christopher".) There are some power politics, and once the machine is built, for some reason, Tywin Lannister decides it's not working and so he's going to have it destroyed. The other five guys make a show of solidarity--if you fire Turing, you will have to fire us as well.

Okay--but it's been two years, there's been no code broken as far as we know, and no progress on any front. Tywin hates Turing, we are told, but not why. Not sure why turning off the machine would help more than--oh just off the top of my head--hiring more cryptographers? No--five guys seems to be all Britain wants to use.

Turing hires two additional people--Keira Knightley, and some Random Guy with Glasses. There are a couple of scenes where Keira gets marginalized, because she's female, and Turing goes to bat for her. He illegally smuggles messages out of Bletchley to her, because she is also a math wizard who solves crossword puzzles very quickly. So she never does any code breaking, but teaches Turing to tell jokes and try to be more socially gracious. They get engaged, even though he's homosexual, she doesn't care because she can stay at Bletchley if she's married, otherwise her parents want her to come back home and live like a decent unmarried 25 year old spinster. Which is all--what? Why is this even in this movie?

At the engagement party, Turing confesses his homosexuality to one of the other code (non)breakers, John Cairncross, played by Allan Leech, better known as Tom Branson from Downtown Abbey. Branson already figured out Turing is homosexual, but advises him not to tell Keira Knightley because women aren't keen on marrying known homosexuals. Branson turns out to be passing information to the Soviets, and claims they are on the same side, so it's okay, and anyway, Turing can't tell because then Branson will tell his secret. Then it turns out that Mark Strong (acting with hair this time!) planted Branson in order to control what does get passed to Stalin, and poor Turing can't keep up with the double-double crosses.

Eventually, the break the code. Do you know how they break the code? They bother to look at messages that have been decoded (where? How? why did it take them years to think of doing that?) and they discover that the Germans end every message with "Heil Hitler." Also, the 6 a.m. weather reports always have the time (6 a.m.) and weather words.

Now, I'm sorry, but knowing that every message ends with "Heil Hitler" means that you have a whole lot fewer codes you need to worry about, doesn't it? Shouldn't they have figured that out a whole lot earlier in the war? Why do they even need Turing's machine if they know that?

There's no time for that! The movie must speed ahead! We have broken the code! We have read the dispatches! We have a map with all the Uboats placed--and it looks like they are about to attack a civilian convoy--that has soldiers on it too. One of the code breakers has a brother serving on one of the ships. We have to notify the army and save the civilians!

But Turing knows--we can't! Then the Germans will know Britain has broken Enigma, and they will simply switch up the machine, and we will have to start all over again! So the Littlest Code Breaker (the one with the brother that was only mentioned in passing once before) stands there in tears and keeps repeating "my brother, my brother" while the rest of the cryptologists unilaterally decide the strategy for handling military intelligence. Because that's how the military works.

Also, they stay on and use "statistics" and "data" to determine how much intelligence they can release without the Germans realizing that Enigma has been compromised. They can't explain how they do that, because it is far too technical, but it's a huge emotional burden. Except for Turing, who doesn't understand emotions. And then the war is won hurrah! And they have to dismantle and burn all their papers because of Reasons.

Interleaved throughout are some Alan Turing's School Days scenes, set in 1928, when he makes a friend who teaches him about codes. They pass coded messages back and forth during math class (which is too easy for them) and Young Turing falls in love, but Christopher dies over break of "bovine tuberculosis" and Turing denies that they knew each other very well at all. So the big emotional scene is played by some kid pretending to be the young Cumberbatch, while not looking like him at all. The culmination of the 1928 scenes is this kid trying to hold his face steady, while his heart is breaking, and while he lies to his headmaster about "I scarcely knew him at all." Why? What does this have to do with adult Turing? Not clear, other than explaining why he named his computer "Christopher."

Then there is a coda, that wraps up Turing's conviction for "gross indecency" and his election to take "chemical castration" to "cure" him of his homosexual predilections instead of two years of prison time. Keira Knightley comes to visit him, and he's a shaky mess, can't do a crossword puzzle (what is causing his mental incapacity, and how bad is it). He ends up breaking down into tears over the idea of being separated from "Christopher." Keira tells him that she is glad he isn't "normal" because there are people alive and towns that exist that wouldn't if he hadn't cracked the Enigma code.

Text on screen tells us that Turing committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41. Turing's work is estimated to have shortened the war by 2 years, saving millions of lives. "Turing machines" are now called "computers." The End. Annnnnnd--credits.

Honestly? This is such a mess that it's hard to sort out just where it went wrong. Maybe it just tried to do too many things at one. American's aren't really up to scratch with Bletchley Park and the role of the Enigma code break and how it affected the war, so U.S. audiences have to be filled in on the essentials. There are attempts to impose the "ticking clock"--we have to crack this code before time runs out!--that just don't connect. There are scenes of British civilians during air raids and evacuating children that fail to connect dramatically, because those scenes are all populated by extras with no connection to anybody we know form the rest of the film. Stock film of bombing of London reminds us that there is a war on, but again--doesn't really affect anybody individually. The risk that Keira might have to move home and live with her parents has more impact than grainy black-and-white film of German planes.

The cost to Turing and to the world of the homophobia is gestured towards, but not really explored. He was a genius and a hero, and it certainly seems unfair NOW to hound him for his sexual preferences. . .but would we feel differently (even now) if he was a pederast? Arguably, in 1951, homosexuality was considered the same way. So if you are really going to try to challenge homophobia, maybe you need to actually challenge it? Nobody but the Manchester bobbies of 1951 seemed to have any real problem with Turing's obvious preferences. Not even Keira cared--she was willing to marry him even after he confessed to her.

It appears that the Weinstein Company is pitching their Oscar campaign on this issue. Too bad the movie itself muddles it so badly.

There are a couple of through lines that should have landed better. The recurrent motif of "is Turing a Soviet Spy" should have felt more ominous--either that he was and we had misjudged him, or that there were serious consequences to him looming. The fact that M6 not only knew who the spy was, but had planted him there from the beginning defanged all threat, both during the war, and afterwards.

"Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine." This gets repeated throughout the film, without ever adding up to much. Christopher says it to Turing in 1928. Turing says it to Keira Knightley in order to get her to Bletchley in 1942. Keira says it back to Turing in 1952-ish. It's really the message of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, isn't it? "You are weird, Alan Turing, but that weirdness can be useful."

Should have been better.