The Imitation Game: Decently likable, terribly trite

The Imitation Game: Decently likable, terribly trite December 15, 2014

Review of The Imitation Game, Directed by Morten Tyldum

In The Imitation Game, a brilliant mathematician sits before a detective and spills out his life story. The mathematician repeatedly urges the detective (and viewers) to “pay attention,” and not to “judge until it’s over.” The mathematician turns out to be Alan Turing, the man given most of the credit for breaking the German Enigma code during World War II, who was also openly homosexual. Certainly, his is a fascinating story. Certainly, it would be a shame for a movie to portray that true story with trite emotion and fabricated plot devices.

Here is where I will say a few nice things: The Imitation Game is an OK movie. It is probably a better-than-average film in the genre devoted to geniuses and their accomplishments (though it is nowhere near as brilliant as, say, A Beautiful Mind). If you went to the theater today to see it, you would probably like it. I was certainly entertained by it.

I’m telling you all this so that you won’t be completely depressed by all the negative things I say later.

But first, a short summary of the film’s first act: Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a socially awkward, rude, somewhat arrogant mathematic genius who doesn’t understand what jokes are. He is recruited by a grumpy general to join a team of smart people dedicated to breaking the German code that seems unbreakable and has already cost Britain dearly in the war. Turing doesn’t get along with these other smart people at all, decides to build his own machine, goes around the grumpy general to write to Winston Churchill and get put in charge of the team. Along the way he puts a crossword puzzle into a newspaper as a recruiting tool to hire clever people, and winds up with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who, as a woman in a field full of men, is also an outsider, like Turing.the imitation game

Now all this is well and good, even if it some of it is thoroughly inaccurate when compared to the historical biography on which it was based. But alongside an entertaining, historically inaccurate plot, the film decides to insert some cute moral lessons for us all to go home to contemplate. It is plainly didactic.

For instance, in a totally fabricated scene, once Turing and his team have broken the Enigma code, they realize a passenger convoy is about to get blown up by German U-boats. The assistants immediately try to telephone military command, to warn of the impending danger, but Turing throws the telephone aside. No, he says, we mustn’t let the Germans figure out we broke the code, or they’ll change it. The team agrees: Better to use only some of the information they glean from deciphering Enigma, so that Britain can win the war and more lives are saved in the long run. But wait! One of the smart people on the team discovers his brother is on the passenger convoy! What will happen now? Has this changed the moral calculus? It’s as if the most cliché moral dilemma in the universe has come to life. Staring the teary assistant in the eyes, Turing holds his ground. Thank you, Hollywood Schoolmarm, for a lesson in complicated moral reasoning. We were all previously unaware of the difficult decisions wartime foists upon humanity.

At the end of the movie, when Turing has been convicted of homosexuality — a crime in post-war Britain — and has been forced to undergo hormonal therapy, the audience easily understands the movie’s lament that what happened to Turing was unfair, that a brilliant man who did a great deed to save civilization should not be punished by that same civilization. But because the film is in no way subtle, that message is underscored by written text across the screen, detailing the number of lives Turing saved, the number of gay men convicted under Britain’s anti-sodomy laws.

The most interesting character in the movie is Joan Clarke, the female assistant who is later briefly engaged to Turing. But the film’s attempt to make her complicated ends up making her somewhat incomprehensible. At first she is almost slavishly devoted to her parents, willing to give up important code-breaking work if they don’t want her to do it; later she is so devoted to her world-changing work that she yells at Turing that she’s staying no matter what. After she agrees to wed Turing and he discloses to her his sexuality, she is completely fine with the possibility of marrying a homosexual; but later she is portrayed as always wanting a “normal” life. One senses there is a lot missing in Joan’s tale, or perhaps too much fiction inserted.

I could go on. To this reviewer, the worst of these movie crimes is that The Imitation Game received five Golden Globe nominations (including best motion picture, drama) and Interstellar — a beautiful, haunting, brilliant, soul-stirring move — received none in the major categories. If the Academy follows the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s lead, expect to find me somewhere howling about the decline of civilization.

The Imitation Game masquerades as a more profound movie than it is. Again and again, it bangs us over the head with its lessons. “Now, detective, you get to judge,” Turing says at the end of the film, after he has relayed his life story. “I can’t judge you,” replies the detective. Another great lesson of fashionable morality: Don’t judge people, even while you obviously lionize them on the Silver Screen. While many Christians, including me, agree with the film that governments today should not send gay people to jail (or force them into hormonal treatment), surely all of us with some sort of artistic sensibility can agree that Turing’s story deserved more than platitudes. One walks away from this film feeling that true story of Alan Turing — a story of history-changing brilliance, a story of unjust suffering, a story with all the subtle shades of human emotion — is only imitated here.

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