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Suspension of Disbelief: The Imitation Game

Cross posted from Coffeefied, Operafied, Fluffified, Beglittered.

Alan Turing is my hero.  He is the intellectual progenitor of my science, a war hero who never held a gun, a rallying cry for the injustices perpetrated against LGBT folk, and an all-around amazingly smart yet tragic person. Some time back, someone asked me what I thought of Benedict Cumberbatch starring in a movie about him.  I hadn’t heard of either Benedict Cumberbatch or a movie about Alan Turing, but I promptly started watching Sherlock specifically to judge how I felt about Cumberbatch as Turing in the then only forthcoming Imitation Game.  Now that The Imitation Game has been released, albeit in a limited way, I have been talking about how much I wanted to see it and I finally managed that at an advance screening an hour’s drive away. 

Despite all that, I wasn’t really sure what exactly I wanted from this film.  I knew two things I didn’t want, those being a lurid focus on either homosexual romance or suicide.  Concerning the former, I wouldn’t mind a torrid steamy romance story here, but if we have learned nothing else from Brokeback Mountain, it is that Hollywood will use even gay cowboys as an excuse to have women taking up most of the topless screen time.  Concerning the latter,  Turing’s death was slightly foreshadowed, but I doubt I would have picked up on it had I not just happened to have known how he died, and because of that, I could be reading in a foreshadowing that isn’t actually there.  Either way, his death is dealt with respectfully, and his sexuality is addressed as a non-issue that people make a fuss about.  

Furthermore, I was deeply concerned that Mr. Cumberbatch would play Turing the same way he plays Sherlock Holmes, by which I mean an I-am-smarter-and-better-than-thou with weird twitchy habits and the camera wanting us to believe that his prominent cheekbones are just irresistibly attractive.  Fortunately, he mostly did not, though when he did it was particularly bad, since most of the film portrayed Turing as being almost completely unable to understand human interactions.  In fact, one scene had Turing explicitly stating that he didn’t know how people could say something other than what they meant yet still be understood.  Then toward the end of his life Turing was shown as sarcastic and superior and rather Sherlock-esque, and I have no idea when the transition happened. 

I was pleasantly surprised in some things.  I have very low expectations of American movies, but that this is a war message the unapologetic message of which is that force is bad and will be defeated by intellect was delightful, unambiguous, and accompanied by masterful cuts between war scenes and a mathematician hard at work.  The other thing I really liked was the subplot of Miss Clarke’s (played by Keira Knightly) struggles to have her very serious intellectual work taken seriously because she was a woman.  We need more movies that push the narrative that sexism is bad and intellectualism is good.

What I didn’t like was that the movie wasn’t particularly intellectual, despite its obvious moral.  The writers had only sorta kinda done their research.  They conflated Turing machines with the code-breaking work he did on Enigma, which were two separate endeavors.  The writers seemed to almost realize how big a flaming deal it was for mathematicians rather than linguists to be doing cryptographic work (it marked a major shift in thought about codes) but didn’t quite get there.  Likewise, the writers seemed to almost get to putting in Turing’s Polite Convention (which states that we cannot actually tell if anyone besides ourselves is actually thinking, but we politely assume that we do) but stopped at having him say that we all think in different ways, so why can’t machines think?  Finally, and this angered me a little, they subverted Turing’s best known (though not the most important) work, that is the Turing test, in order to make a statement about not judging people.  Turing’s arresting police office in the film states that if asked to judge whether Turing was machine or human, he could not possibly judge.  Not being able to tell is a result,not, in this context, a statement of being non-judgmental about homosexuality.  Can we please make points about tolerance without sacrificing our grasp of science?  I realize I’m a computer science nerd who basically worships Turing, and I’m probably not the film’s target audience, but still.  There are multiple ways to say everything, what is wrong with the factually correct ways?  At least there was a good and mathematical explanation of why brute force methods in science are untenable because large numbers.  

I also didn’t like the way the story was handled.  A (by the accounts I’ve read) quiet and reserved mathematician published a seminal, but not really at the time recognized as such, paper on constructing imaginary machines that demonstrate important things about determinism, then goes on to crack the most mathematically advanced code at the time, then is tortured into suicide by the British government, that is a story in itself.  Yet the film pads it with lots of conflicts between Turing and colleagues and introduces an element that I really hate by having Turing anthropomorphize the machine he built into the image of his dead childhood love Christopher.  No.  Just no. I cannot sufficiently express the amount of no that I have in response to a Hollywood Turing having a creepy and weird romance with a machine named Christopher.  But besides that, the whole film felt a little short on substance, and even short on manufactured interpersonal drama.

So, it had some of the things I wanted.  Hollywood is actually making a war movie the message of which is that it is better to use intellect than force.  It was even a nuanced movie, that did not pretend that one intellectual victory would magically make all problems go away or that war comes without horrific and loathsome moral dilemmas in which there is really no way to actually win, there are only ways to lose less badly.  Where less badly still means fields full of graves.  The film had two women characters who talked to one another (but about a man.  So close to a pass of the Bechdel test.  Why can’t even films with a subplot about sexism understand the sexism in their own lack of women characters talking to each other about anything other than a man?). The film takes an unambiguous “discrimination and sexism are bad” stance. It may have felt a little short on substance, and uninformed on science, but it exists and makes statements that should be more prevalent.  Ultimately, The Imitation Game is not the story I would like to see told about my hero, but it does contain a moment in which Joan Clarke says to Alan Turing “the world is a better place because you were in it.”  Yes.  It is.  This world was not only changed irrevocably because of the scientific achievements of Alan Turing, it became a better place because of his efforts.  We need more people like him.  

Featured Image from imdb.com.

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Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.

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