Tuesday, June 9, 2015

CRACKER? The Imitation Game (2014)

                “The Imitation Game” attempts to bring recognition to one of the men most responsible for the Allies’ victory over Germany in WWII.  Alan Turing played a huge role in the decoding of German military messages and also had a role in the development of the computer.  He was an eccentric genius that was ripe for a biopic.  Director Morten Tyldum took on the task using a script by Graham Moore based on the book Alan Turing:  The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.  The movie was a major hit with audiences and critics.  It was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Benedict Kumberbatch), Supporting Actress (Kierra Knightley), and Original Score.  Moore won for Best Adapted Screenplay.  It cost $14 million and made $220 million.  It was the highest grossing independent film of 2014.

                The movie is told in nonlinear form and starts with Turing under arrest in 1951 for homosexuality with suspicion of espionage for the Soviets.  The movie uses Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) as a framing device.  Nock’s ferreting is intercut with the tale of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park.  The brilliant, but prickly Turing butts heads with his boss Commander Denniston (Charles Dance).  He also has trouble fitting in with his co-geniuses.  Turing is anti-social, uncooperative, and has no sense of humor.  He is only interested in his work.  “I like solving problems and Enigma is the most difficult problem in the world.”  He goes over Denniston’s head in a letter to Churchill which gets him the Prime Minister’s support for his use of the computer he calls “Christopher” to decipher the German Enigma messages. 

Hey ladies, want to get with Benedict Kumberbatch?
Become a crossword puzzle expert!
                A turning point in Turing’s relations with his colleagues comes when he recruits Joan Clarke (Knightley) through a crossword puzzle contest.  She works to humanize him and his team begins to warm to him.  When Denniston decides to pull the plug on “Christopher”, the team stands together and prevents it.  Not long after, Turing has a brainstorm which allows the machine to start reading messages.  This triumph precipitates the conundrum of whether to jeopardize the secrecy of Ultra (the code-breaking effort) by warning convoys of impending u-boat attacks.  There is also the subplot of a spy being in their midst.  Through all this is the underlying theme of Turing’s homosexuality and its effect on his career.

                “The Imitation Game” is the type of movie that while you are enjoying it you can’t help but wonder how much of your enjoyment is enhanced at the expense of history.  You shake your head at plot developments and characters that you are sure are fictional and then you can’t wait to find out if your bulldar (bullshit radar – copyright pending) is right.  A major kudo to Graham Moore for fashioning a screenplay that appears to be plausible in most aspects.  Unfortunately, when I did my research I was left with the impression that his Adapted Screenplay Oscar was a joke.  It is clear that he was disrespectful of his source biography by Andrew Hodges.  It is also clear that Hodges has been constrained by contractual obligations from criticizing the liberties the movie takes.  Once again we are faced with the debate over “artistic license”.  I’m not against “enhancing” a story, but you can go too far and this movie does.  Spoiler alert for the next paragraph.
Alan Turing and some other code-breakers
                I will be doing a “History or Hollywood” post later on this movie, but for now here are some of my more interesting findings.  Turing did have a relationship with a schoolmate named Christopher, but it was unrequited because Christopher was straight.  They did not bond over code-breaking.  Turing did not name the machine “Christopher”.  Turing did not have trouble with his boss Denniston who was actually supportive of the effort.  The Denniston family was justifiably upset with the portrayal.  (But when you hire Charles Dance to play the character, what do you expect?)  Joan did not get her position by solving a crossword.  Turing did propose to her, but the movie tones down their real affection for each other.  She was aware of his homosexuality and it did not matter.  The rest of the team is Hollywoodized, although based on real people.  Those real people would probably be upset with the way the movie assigns almost all the credit to Turing when it was much more of a collaborative affair.  Cairncross (Allen Leech) was a Soviet spy, but he did not work with Turing and did not threaten to out him.  Peter Hilton did not have a brother who was in a targeted convoy.  That dilemma-creating plot device was the biggest false note in the movie.  It was also ridiculous to assign to Turing the power to decide what the deciphered messages would be used for.  This was done at a much higher level.  The framing device is bogus.  Nock is the only character not based on a real person.  It is true that Turing’s illegal homosexuality was discovered through a burglary of his home, but this did not lead to an investigation for espionage.  Last, but not least, Turing was not as socially awkward as the movie implies.  He was not the grandfather of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.  He was sociable, had a sense of humor, and worked well with others.

Casting decision - Bernard Kumberbatch or Rowan Atkinson?
The main draw to the movie is the acting.  Cumberbatch is remarkable in a role that was obvious Oscar bait.  He is perfect as the Hollywood version of Turing.  Knightley pairs well with him and brings some verve to a serious movie.  The rest of the cast is fine although the casting of Dance was lazy.  The casting director must have been told to look for someone who could play the stereotyped hide-bound authority figure in his sleep.  This was necessary because the movie relies on the tired war movie trope of the maverick versus the system.  The nonlinear format works well and the scenes Moore decided to enact move the film along crisply.  After all, we are talking about a movie about geeks breaking an unbreakable code.  It helps that the main geek is a fascinating character, but to top the $100 million mark you have to add fascinating fictional scenarios.  There is some suspense.  The scene where the machine works for the first time is even goose-bumpy.  The movie benefits from the fact that most of the story is unknown to the general public.  There are some intercuts to the war using CGI and actual footage in order to back up the exaggerated claim that the code-breaking saved fourteen million lives.
A machine and "Christopher"
                One has to wonder if Turing had been straight whether the movie would have been made.  His sexual orientation is the key to the plot.  This is a good thing as the movie is not only entertaining, but has a point to make.  That point is that the intolerance for sexual “deviance” was counterproductive for civilized society.  The fact that the world was deprived of one of the twentieth century’s great minds by a law forbidding homosexuality is tragic.  Tragic is certainly a word that could be attributed to that thread of the movie.  It contrasts well with the triumphal nature of the code-breaking.  It tells you something no movie could have been made about Ultra until it was revealed in 1974 (29 years after the war, not 50 as the movie proclaims) and yet it was not until much later that a major Hollywood movie could be made focusing on the gay man most responsible for Ultra.

Who are they getting to play me?  Oh crap, I did not know
I was an a-hole!
                “The Imitation Game” is a good example of how a movie can be an A as a movie and a B as a war movie.  The A is for entertaining and telling an important story and the B is for doing it in an acceptable, but truth-stretching way.  My favorite war movies are the ones that shine a light on little known heroes or incidents.  Alan Turing deserved this movie.  How many people knew about him before this movie?  Unfortunately, how many people who know about him now from the movie, now have inaccurate knowledge of him. Oh well, better to be known inaccurately than to remain in obscurity.

GRADE  =  B    


1 comment:

  1. Cumberbatch gives a performance that is, by turns, awkward, triumphant, and heartbreaking.


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