Friday, January 23, 2015

The Imitation Game

The title of The Imitation Game (2014; dir. Morton Tyldum) refers to a test proposed by Alan Turing which through a series of questions seeks to distinguish between the artificial intelligence of a machine and the intelligence of a human brain.  It’s also a metaphor for the subject of this film and suggests the idea of impersonation, of pretending to be one thing when you’re something else, either for the sake of achieving a particular end, or for self-protection.  It also refers, I think, to the way that social rules and mores can force one to act in a particular way that is against his or her inner nature.  In mid-20-century Britain, a country with strict laws against homosexuality that sent thousands of people to prison, Alan Turing impersonates a definition of normalcy that runs against his nature. Ultimately, he fell victim to those laws.
Being a homosexual is not Turing’s only challenge.  The film portrays him as a sociopath who exhibits many characteristics of autism.  He’s socially inept and awkward.  He doesn’t understand jokes.  He doesn’t work well with members of his team.  He’s wholly self-absorbed and focused only on the things that interest him.  Because he’s a brilliant mathematician who loves puzzles, he’s presented in this film as the ideal person to decrypt the code that the Nazis used during World War II.  His success in doing so enables the Allies to win the war.
The Imitation Game has been criticized for how it portrays Turing’s homosexuality and other aspects of his life, including his work during World War II.  It announces in the opening credits that it is “based on a true story” (a misleading statement if ever there was one because it implies that liberties with the truth have been taken), and this lends an aura of authenticity.  In a very general sense the film gives an accurate account of Turing’s important contributions.  His work played a central role in helping the Allies win the Second World War.  He conceptualized the first computers and developed the concept of artificial intelligence.   He was also victimized by the oppressive laws of his time: he was arrested in 1952 and convicted of “indecency.”  But in many ways the film changes, distorts, simplifies, and invents many details of the story.  See “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing” in the 12-1-24-14 issue of The New York Review of Books (

Few of us understand what is involved in the decrypting machine Turing built or the ways one goes about deciphering an incredibly complex code.  That part of the film we must take at face value because we lack the knowledge necessary to understand what was involved.  However, accounts of Turing’s life make clear that his work during World War II was considerably more complex and challenging than the film portrays.  He worked on a number of teams, many more people than Turing’s team were involved in decrypting the code, and there was no sudden breakthrough moment (as the film portrays).  Rather, there was gradual progress. Moreover, Turing was not autistic, he did have a sense of humor, and he remained intellectually active to the end of his life (the films shows his intellect as damaged by the hormone treatments he agreed to take to avoid imprisonment after his conviction).  As good a drama as this is, as incisive a character study as it purports to be (Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Turing), it is not good history, and the character it studies is not the historical Alan Turing.  Rather, that character is a simulation of Turing—similar in some ways, different in others.
One may argue (as has been argued in defense of the film Selma’s inaccurate portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson) that films are artistic creations that shouldn’t be judged on the basis of historical accuracy.  However, when films purport to present history, I believe accuracy matters.  It’s a cheap and tawdry claim to make on the one hand that a film is based on a true story and then to excuse its departures from truth on the basis of its artistic nature.  Without truth, what do we have?  Lies, simulations, inaccuracies, misunderstanding.
When the war is over, Turing’s supervisor tells the team to go home and never to talk about the work they have done.  He indicates that the government will not acknowledge them in any way.  Thus, as the film implies without stating outright, when Turing is arrested for indecent behavior, he cannot turn to members of his team or to the government for assistance in any way.

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