The Imitation Game

Based on Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, The Imitation Game centers on the life of the British mathematician who created the Bombe, the giant machine that broke Germany’s Enigma code (or “The Nazi Code”) in World War II. He is credited as the father of computer science. In the movie, the machine was called “Christopher” to be more sentimental and reminiscent of Turing’s first love. When it broke the code in real life, the name was changed to “Victory.” For those who don’t know what Enigma is, it was the supposedly unbreakable cipher used by the Nazis during World War II to encrypt all of their messages.

The name of the movie is derived from Alan Turing’s post-World War II work, mainly the Turing Test, which tried to answer the question of what makes the human mind uniquely human and how closely can artificial intelligence imitate it? The film focuses on three distinct time periods of the genius’ life: his secondary education at the Sherborne School (1928), his work in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park (1939-45), and when he was arrested for being a homosexual in 1952. Bletchley Park (or the code name “Ultra”) was the home to the British Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) where cryptographers worked on breaking the Japanese and German codes during World War II. Hut 8 was where the Nazi Code was finally broken by Turing and his team. The movie opens with a scene from the latest chronological time period, which was mostly vague with one piece of foreshadowing. It was an interesting decision, but one that seems to distance the audience from the main story before it has really begun. The film is well edited, almost seamlessly transferring between these epochs, though the mental transition was still sometimes a bit jarring.

Although Benedict Cumberbatch shares little physical resemblance to his character, he expertly portrays the complicated and fascinating man. Working from oral reports about Turing’s speech patterns, Cumberbatch created his own type of stutter that was both high in pitch like Turing’s, but not so much that it grated on the audience’s ears and patience. One can easily believe that the actor who plays Sherlock Holmes on BBC’s Sherlock is the brilliant, but sometimes unlikeable man responsible for ending World War II at least 2 years earlier than expected. As Sherlock, he indirectly referenced breaking the Enigma code in one episode (Season 2, Episode 1, “A Scandal in Belgravia”) when he mentions the controversial Coventry bombing.

The ensemble consists of strong actors including The Good Wife’s Matthew Goode, Gosford Park’s Charles Dance, and Mark Strong from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy among others. In the midst of all the testosterone on screen, Keira Knightley shines as her character, Joan Clarke, a brilliant woman working in a man’s world.

Enigma Machine displayed in the Discovery Spy: The Secret World of Espionage Exhibit in 2012

Though the movie was generally accurate, some things were changed for the sake of cinematic drama. Joan Clarke’s backstory and entrance to Bletchley were modified, but it was true that she and Turing were briefly engaged. Using shiny red wires for the Bombe was a historically inaccurate set design choice; back then, wires were covered in cloth. It has been revealed this was a conscious decision made based on the aesthetic impact rather than authenticity. The conversation with the police officer that is woven throughout the film was most likely a dramatized and condensed version of written accounts surrounding Turing’s arrest. An important aspect of Turing’s life that is not shown is his actual sentencing and his ultimate suicide (cyanide poisoning, which is tied to the first scene of the film). This occurred after a year of taking hormones to chemically castrate himself as court-ordered punishment for being a homosexual. Turing chose this over a two-year imprisonment so he could continue working. The actors and film creators freely talked about Turing’s unfortunate end in many of their video and print interviews.

Like most biopics, The Imitation Game briefly touches on the aftermath of his life with typed summaries before the credits roll. Some of the most striking facts were that Victory saved 14,000,000 lives and that the Allies kept their success in breaking the Nazi Code a secret for 50 years. The film did not explain that the reason for the last fact was because the Russians also used this cipher for their communications during the Cold War.

Despite having made the “single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany” according to Winston Churchill, Alan Turing was not officially pardoned for having been criminalized as a homosexual by the Royal Family until Christmas Eve 2013. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown remarked, “On behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”

The Imitation Game is a beautifully made film that shines light on an important piece of history that has remained unknown to most of the general public until now.

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