The Imitation Game’s Storytelling Fails the Test
The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum’s biopic on the British mathematician, logician, philosopher, and cryptanalyst Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), has many laudable qualities. Despite many historical embellishments, inferences, and oversimplifications, the film is an admirably coherent work. It begins in a police interrogation room in 1952, the year Turing was burgled by a lover’s acquaintance and, in perhaps a characteristic oversight, revealed this information to the police and was subsequently tried and convicted for gross sodomy under the draconian British indecency laws which ruined the lives of (mostly male) gays until the late 1960’s.
The whole film is a series of extended flashbacks, dramatizations of Turing’s testimony. Perhaps due to Turing’s retrospective lens, but more likely the result of the creativity of screenwriter Graham Moore, Turing’s life from childhood to death is unified by one central struggle: the effort to communicate truthfully and genuinely, and to understand the relationships between people.
One of our first impressions of Turing is in his interview with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), the naval officer in charge of the British decryption efforts at Bletchley Park. In this interview—an interview which, like many other dialogues in the film, depicts Turing in the act of persuasion—we see Turing as a failed speaker: he struggles to communicate his potential usefulness to a stodgy old military man, coming across first as arrogant, then as simply daft. It is only when he lands upon the right word—ironically, “Enigma”—that he makes a connection.
Later in the film we see schoolboy Turing as he struggles to cope with the Dickensian bullying he experienced at the hands of other students. In one scene, very difficult to watch, he is trapped beneath the floorboards of a classroom, like a corpse in a coffin. They jeer at him while he screams for help, stamping their feet over young Turing’s face. It is only when Turing ceases to scream, when he withdraws within himself and abandons efforts to communicate, that the bullies go away.
Turing is freed from this coffin by his schoolmate Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon), his only friend and perhaps his first love. Morcom explains that Turing is bullied because he is “different,” alluding surely to his unusual social behaviorsbut conceivably also to his budding homosexuality. It is Morcom—the love object, the hero, the liberator—who first introduces Turing to cryptography one afternoon. Codes are not secret messages, Morcom explains, rather messages in plain sight, but whose meaning is obscure. “Isn’t that just like talking?” young Turing asks: you say one thing but you mean something entirely different.
This focus on speech, on the success and failure semantic communication between individuals, is a central topic in one of Turing’s most famous published works, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950), where the Imitation Game (later known as the Turing Test) was first described. The paper is an attempt to respond to the question “can machines think?” Its most substantial contribution is in the clarification of this question, which requires a careful definition of “machines” and “think.” Turing suggests a kind of game, a test, by which this question might be empirically resolved—a game that, at the end of the film, Turing invites his police interrogator to play. The game is relatively simple, as Turing describes it:
The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the ‘imitation game.” It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart front the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either “X is A and Y is B” or “X is B and Y is A.”
We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?”
We can’t help but ignore the formal similarity between this concluding scene and the game itself: Turing is sitting in a drab police room with an interrogator; the object of the game is to determine the sex of the players, and the object of the interrogation, at least partially, is to determine whether or not Turing is guilty of transgressing traditional sexual boundaries. But Turing himself, by framing his testimony as an instance of the game, suggests that the whole narrative up to the moment of interrogation—practically the entire film—is itself a kind of test. What exactly is being tested is the fundamental “difference” Christopher Morcom described earlier in the movie: Is Turing a machine, or a human? In his cold brilliance, is he a monster or a person? Is he basically different than the rest of us, or the same? Once the Enigma code is broken, and only Turing and his coworkers are capable of “ending the war,” is he a man or a god? Later in the film, when Turing reveals that he has been sentenced to chemical castration (estrogen hormone therapy), the question might even be, is Turing a man or a woman?
So it is clear that The Imitation Game is a film of some literary merit. But despite the richness discussed above, it suffers from three progressively graver faults. The first is the most easily dismissed: its engagement with the actual content of Turing’s work, as well as the British ULTRA project more generally, is highly simplistic. This is not only Hollywood oversimplification of math and science, but also Hollywood ignorance of history. The British government seems to consist only of typically blockheaded bureaucrats, despite a somewhat slimy MI6 agent and, from afar, a forward-thinking Winston Churchill. But what is perhaps worse is how the film portrays the code-breaking effort to be the work of a small coterie of men, with the occasional participation of one woman, Joan Clark (Keira Knightley), when in reality there were at least 9,000 people working on the Enigma at the height of the effort.
The film falls into a second trap: reducing Turing, a multifaceted character, into the stereotypical tortured genius, a kind of idiot savant who is incapable of anything besides mathematics. This makes Turing fit more easily into the film’s conceit—a man struggling to understand what he is and how he relates to others—but frankly makes Turing into a relatively uninteresting character. Benedict Cumberbatch captures certain dimensions of Turing’s characters very well—his aloofness, his unintentional arrogance, and his moments of brilliance—but we never see many qualities for which Turing was remembered, such as his occasional charm and sense of humor. Replacing this fascinating character with a now-familiar archetype of the questionably sane, questionably human genius (employed notably in Rain Man and A Beautiful Mind) is useful in a literary sense, in that it allows for the formal coherence noted above, but it verges on irresponsible from a biographical point of view.
The third and final problem with The Imitation Game is not simply reductionist, but also actively harmful. It is the complete abstraction of Turing’s homosexuality, and, more importantly, the reliance on a traditional heterosexual, albeit platonic, romance between Joan Clark and Turing. His homosexuality is never really treated in homosexual terms: we see only an inkling as he writes an encoded love note to Christopher Morcom; we witness confessions to a fellow codebreaker (which, as one reviewer points out, is later used as blackmail, thereby rendering Turing a traitor) and to Joan; and we hear him describe his relationship with a male prostitute to the police interrogator. Turing names his machines Christopher, and, and the end of the movie, when Joan rediscovers him, seems to treat his computer as an attempt to immortalize his first (male) love.
But the only explicitly amorous relationship we see is between him and Joan—and it plays out in the most cliché fashion imaginable: the brilliant young female mathematician is recruited to the codebreaking unit, but is held back by her conservative parents who feel that a husband is more important than a job. So, of course, the awkward young genius, seemingly unfit for romance, proposes marriage in order to keep her at Bletchley. As this historically dubious, hetero- and gender-normative narrative unfolds, the two develop an affection for one another. Joan helps to civilize the supposedly asocial Turing. They do romantic things like eat picnics and go to dances and solve math problems together. When he admits to her that he is gay, she trivializes it, saying that their minds are what unites them. Homosexuality is just a label, she suggests—even though it was what ultimately led to his arrest. The film’s celebration of this moment seems to say: “Don’t think of Turing as gay, just think of him as a man who loves women in a different way, with his mind and not with his body.” Turing, seemingly to remove Joan from suspicion of spying for the Soviet Union, breaks off their relationship, perhaps rejecting this crypto-hetero vision at the same time. But at the end, even as he is pathetically fiddling away at his latest Christopher, it is Joan who returns to comfort him, the spurned lover coming home.
Turing’s engagement to Joan Clark did in fact take place. But the film leads us to believe that it was the only significant adult relationship of his life. The film also suggests that Turing was heterosexual in all the important ways, platonically attracted to a woman, but, besides for a boyhood crush on Christopher Morcom, only ever engaging with men when paying them to “touch [his] penis,” as he puts it to his interrogator.
For all its efforts to decode Alan Turing, The Imitation Game is seemingly incapable of solving the puzzle of his sexuality. It is even uncomfortable with ambiguity, and so shoehorns his life into a traditional man-woman romance, thereby perpetuating the idea that homosexual love must be the same as heterosexual love—or that heterosexuality is the province of true love, and homosexuality the province of pure carnal exchange.
If we do as the film invites us, and treat The Imitation Game as a test of Alan Turing’s difference, an experiment to figure out how he was different from the rest of us, the most general version of the tested question would be: Who and what is Alan Turing? According to the film, Turing is a tortured genius, verging on idiot savant, who almost singlehandedly saves England from two more years of war and an estimated 14 million additional lives lost. He is not only a war hero but also a male hero for advancing the career of Joan Clark, whom he then engages to be married, according to the usual man-saves-woman script. His homosexuality is not really important to his character—if anything, we see it as something that holds him back, that gets him in trouble, a kind of inconvenience that prevents the flowering of a beautiful love story (which is all but physically consummated) and prevents Turing from living happily ever after. At the end of the movie we read that Turing was discovered dead in 1954 after a year of hormone therapy. This is historically inaccurate, as Turing had ceased hormone therapy a full year before his death. But this falsehood is revealing, as it shows that his homosexuality is necessary for the tragic arc of his life to be complete. He wouldn’t be appropriately tortured if he weren’t persecuted for something—and if, as the movie suggests, that something weren’t so utterly trivial and abstract and meaningless.
Turing’s story is flattened. He is turned from a complex character into a simple archetype. He is turned from a homosexual man into a heterosexual. This movie does disrespect not only to Turing and the thousands with whom he directly or indirectly collaborated, but also ignores what exactly made Turing different, sweeping the details under the rug in order to advance the ultimately uplifting conclusion that, no matter how different people may seem, they are ultimately the same. The question remains, however, the same as whom?