by Matt Levine
"Sometimes, it’s the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."
Picture, if you will, a screenwriter laboring away in a Hollywood loft, tasked with adapting the tumultuous life story of Alan Turing into the kind of inspirational fodder that wins Oscars. Because underdog stories often lead to simplistic dramatic catharsis, this screenwriter is supposed to emphasize how Turing—humorless, antisocial, distrustful, and (no small matter in 1940s London) homosexual—won World War II for England seemingly single-handedly by developing a complex machine that could decode Germany’s Enigma encryption device. So our harried screenwriter (in this case Graham Moore, whose primary credit so far involves writing an episode of the series 10 Things I Hate About You) latches on to maudlin lines of dialogue that crudely point out the unlikely historical significance of the film’s central plucky iconoclast, most notably the quotation cited above.
Director: Morten Tyldum
Producers: Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, Teddy Schwarzman
Writers: Graham Moore, Andrew Hodges (book)
Cinematographer: Oscar Faura
Editor: William Goldenberg
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, James Northcote,
Tom Goodman-Hill, Steven Waddington, Ilan Goodman, Jack Tarlton
Premiere: August 29, 2014 — Telluride Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014
US Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Anyone who has spent any time talking to real humans knows this is not how people talk; this is how screenwriters talk, in aphorisms and trailer-ready slogans and mottos that sound meaningful but are actually incredibly empty. What’s worse, this line of dialogue is repeated three times by different characters, turning this idiotic catchphrase into something like the movie’s raison d’être. You’ll walk away from The Imitation Game thinking, yes, the unlikeliest and smallest of heroes actually can change history, which is one of the least appropriate conclusions to take away from Alan Turing’s life story.
The simplicity of this quote points out what’s wrong with The Imitation Game, and just how drastically wrong it is. Turing’s life and accomplishments, though fascinating and impactful, were not just blissfully inspirational. He developed an aptitude for advanced calculus by the age of 14 while attending the Sherborne boarding school; he also became close friends with a schoolmate who soon died of tuberculosis, leading to Turing’s pronounced atheism. In 1938 Turing began working with the British Government Code & Cypher School, where he and his team were tasked with decoding the German Enigma machine, a mechanized cypher device which had 159 quintillion variations that reset every day at midnight. As one hard-assed military officer snappily tells Turing in the film, the Enigma machine has killed “three people…while we’ve been having this conversation,” which certainly sounds dramatic though it’s illogical on a statistical and militaristic level.
The vast majority of The Imitation Game consists of Turing—whose obsessive-compulsive behavior might today lead to a diagnosis of Asberger’s, though back then he was simply deemed “an odd duck”—laboring over an early computer system that would decode all possible variations using systemized algorithms. There are scenes of him running, sweat flying, down a quiet country lane (and indeed, Turing was a skilled long-distance runner); and scenes of him and his coworkers laboring until midnight to solve complicated cyphers, only to destroy their work at midnight. It’s obvious why the filmmakers thought this biography would make for compelling cinema.
But there is only veiled mention of Turing’s homosexuality, including a brief, panicky mention of Turing’s solicitation of a male prostitute; none of this (potentially powerful) interaction is seen onscreen, only a momentary shot of a blond man sitting in a police interrogation room. Turing’s friend and apparent first love from boarding school, Christopher, acts as a bittersweet origin story—their guarded romance is conveyed by overly gentle flashbacks, defined entirely by fleeting glances and burning looks—and the fact that Turing names his cryptanalysis machine Christopher simplistically equates Turing’s sexuality with the mathematical genius that made him such a maverick. While the somber last act of the film does deal with Turing’s arrest for “indecency” in 1952—after his machine apparently wins the war for England, and after he dances around the truth to an ambivalent police inspector in scenes that act as a frame story—the movie seems too nervous to sensitively convey his attraction to men, and it’s so afraid of political commentary that it never really describes how the British government essentially castrated him as a “cure” for homosexuality by giving him hormone treatments.
Turing committed suicide by poisoning himself with cyanide in 1954, two years after his arrest. Ludicrously, this tragic fact is conveyed to the audience by an onscreen title accompanied by an image of Turing and his roguish code breakers celebrating the end of the war by burning their paperwork in a bonfire—both a befuddling contradiction of text and image and a shameful example of The Imitation Game’s hypocrisy. It’s Turing’s tumultuous life and repressed sexuality that make him, in part, a fascinating character, but the movie so cravenly desires mass popularity and little statuettes that it mostly emphasizes the safe and inspiring elements—the prickly personality and mathematical genius that turn him into a likable underdog, the unlikely war hero.
The Imitation Game is equally unwilling (or unable) to step out of its stylistic comfort zone. There is literally no shot, no edit, no musical cue that is original in any way; this is a strictly point-and-shoot affair, comprised almost entirely of expositional long shots and medium-shots that care only about narrative clarity. Soundtrack composer Alexandre Desplat can create interesting scores occasionally (as in The Grand Budapest Hotel), but The Imitation Game finds him in full-on Oscar-baiting swelling-strings mode. Flashbacks are tipped off by predictable dissolves, momentary war scenes are clearly accomplished by crude CGI—Morten Tyldum’s direction is the definition of pedestrian, as lazy in its visualization as in its disinterest in the story’s thematic undercurrents.
Benedict Cumberbatch will inevitably warrant at least an Oscar nomination for his performance as Alan Turing, but it’s a portrayal that’s impressive in the same way as a connect-the-dots drawing: it dutifully follows a template, tracing the character arc that we fully expect from the beginning. Cumberbatch is too skilled an actor not to affect us slightly, but there’s no spark or originality. The actor seems fully complicit in the movie’s attempts to soften Turing’s abrasive edges, removing precisely what makes the subject so human. The performers surrounding him are no better; as Turing’s fellow cryptographer Joan Clarke, Keira Knightley spouts some embarrassing motivational platitudes (like the one that begins this review), but her character is only a crutch to support Turing, and the intimations of feminism implicit in her (Clarke sneaks away from her restrictive parents’ house to aid Turing, claiming to have received a job as a secretary) sadly never come to fruition.
Literally the only glimmer of innovation arrives in the form of Turing’s computer theory; though his science is never discussed in depth in the film, a few lines of dialogue crudely posit the idea that Turing’s early prototypes for the modern computer instantaneously asked the question of what separates human and artificial intelligence. This is the dichotomy that gives the film its title (as Turing’s machine is meant to imitate, and ultimately outdo, human reasoning), and it’s reaffirmed by Turing’s evasive answers to Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear), the man who ultimately persecuted him for homosexuality. Applying this theme to Turing’s ongoing love for his departed friend Christopher—especially when Alan obsessively reconstructs “Christopher” in his apartment, alone and debased, after his guilty verdict, trying to rediscover human love through artificial means—could have been devastating, but there’s nothing sincere or masterful enough in the movie to even approximate emotional resonance. (Also, the theme might be interesting, but it was already conveyed by infinitely more audacious means in last year’s Computer Chess.)
The life story and technological innovation of Alan Turing make for one of the more compelling biographies of the twentieth century, and a powerful movie deserves to be made about him someday. But The Imitation Game fails miserably at that endeavor; it plods down the laziest, most cliche-ridden path, avoiding honesty and volatility at every possible moment. Forget the computer-theory impetus for that title—there’s a sadder yet more appropriate context for the film’s name. If The Imitation Game is good at anything, it’s imitation—copying the awards-mongering template of similarly airless prestige pieces before it. Like Turing’s decryption bombe, it’s programmed with exactitude, each wire crossed and each algorithm prepared to lead this offensively gutless film down the red carpet on Oscar night.