From the desk of David Luhrssen: The Enigma of Alan Turing

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David Luhrssen is the arts and entertainment editor at Milwaukee’s Shepherd Express and has worked as a film critic for more than twenty years. He is the author of Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen and coauthor of War on the Silver Screen: Shaping America’s Perception of History (Potomac Books, 2014). The following film review was originally published on Shephard Express.

The Imitation Game

The Enigma of Alan Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch has become the go-to guy for socially maladroit geniuses. In The Imitation Game, the British actor who brought Sherlock Holmes and Julian Assange to life stars as Alan Turing, the mathematician whose foundational work in codebreaking-computer science helped defeat the Nazis. Cumberbatch’s performance is sterling, depicting the eccentric Cambridge professor as supremely contemptuous of anyone incapable of following his theories, which would be everyone below Einstein’s IQ. He is absentmindedly cruel, hard put to maintain emotional connection, yet Cumberbatch renders him sympathetically, a lonely soul inside that awkward skin struggling to surface.

Directed by Morten Tyldum from a screenplay by Graham Moore, The Imitation Game is “based on a true story.” The phrase grants wide berth to the filmmakers; the nub of what they tell is correct but the context is often wrong. What’s right is that Turing was one of the intellectual engines of Allied victory housed at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret codebreaking facility. The project’s greatest success was to decipher the signals read by Germany’s electro-mechanical cipher machine, an outsized typewriter-looking thing called the Engima, which cryptographers had found virtually impossible to crack.

The Imitation Game is grounded in the popular Atlas Shrugged myth of the lone, misunderstood genius that challenges the norm. As a result, the screenplay exaggerates Turing’s outsider status (he was a Fellow of the Royal Society!) and the badgering he may have received from uncomprehending higher-ups. Bletchley’s commanding officer, Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), is unfairly treated in the film. In reality, Bletchley Park was his idea, and he actively recruited men of Turing’s caliber. The brain trust he assembled was more a team effort than shown in the film, even if Turing was one of the team leaders. And after the war, Turing’s contributions were not unacknowledged as the screenplay implies. He received an OBE, a step below knighthood, even if the details of his work at Bletchley remained secret until the 1970s, two decades after his death. However, The Imitation Game nails some of the small details, including the recruitment of codebreakers through a newspaper ad featuring an especially difficult crossword puzzle for applicants to solve.

The secrecy surrounding Bletchley Park was familiar ground for Turing. Preferring the sexual company of men at a time when homosexuality was illegal, his inner life was already an enigma before he went to work on the German codes. As shown in the film, Turing was engaged to a colleague at Bletchley, mathematician Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), but decided not to go through with the marriage.

Unlike most Hollywood biographical pictures, whose protagonists inevitably triumph over adversity in the final act, The Imitation Game ends in tragedy after Turing’s arrest for the “indecency” of his sexual preferences. Given the choice of prison or hormonal injections to reduce his libido, Turing opted for the latter and fell ill. The movie follows the official version of suicide, although many maintain that his death was accidental. Either way, his life ended long before his algorithms led to everything from moon landings to smart phones. Cumberbatch puts an unforgettable face on an obscure but important historical figure in The Imitation Game.

-David Luhrssen