I’m fascinated by history. Not necessarily by the big events and the brutal coups and the bloody battles, but by the small, everyday actions that send the world — either on a personal or global level — careening onto a different path. Things like Gwyneth Paltrow stopping for a pedestrian on the morning of September 11, 2001, or Gavrilo Princip grabbing a sandwich just in time to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Individual choices, whether for good or for ill, help shape the world. There’s no way to know what ramifications our decisions will have. For example, say I’m trying to decide between pizza and a bento box for dinner. What if the pizza guy doesn’t get here in time and is fired, prompting him to start a life of crime? Or what if I slip on the ice and hurt myself walking over to the Japanese place, putting me on crutches and causing me to miss the bus — and an important meeting — two weeks from now?
Something as small as ordering pizza or going for takeout can completely change the course of an individual’s life. And yet an equally simple act — one boy giving a book of secret codes to another boy — was the spark that created the modern world.
In The Imitation Game, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a painfully awkward social recluse who has never fit in with his peers. The movie starts in 1952 with an investigation into a recent break-in at his home. In the process of trying to determine what happened from the evasive Turing, the detectives discover that he’s gay — an imprisonable offence at the time — and that there’s more to his wartime record than a blank manila envelope.
Backtrack to the start of World War II. The Germans are using a machine called Enigma to encode their communications. The British are intercepting all their messages, but with millions of millions of possible settings that are reset every day at midnight, they don’t have a chance in hell of decoding them.
That’s where Turing comes in. He assembles his own team of cryptographers and starts work on an impossible machine of his own: Christopher, named after Alan’s only childhood friend and his first love, who died of tuberculosis. This “digital computer” that will learn each day’s new Enigma settings and help them win the war.
After countless days of frustratingly little success, the team breaks the code — and immediately realizes that they can tell no one. After all, if they use their newfound knowledge to avert attacks, the Germans will learn that their code has been broken and merely change it.
For the rest of the war, Turing’s team is forced to live with an overwhelming level of responsibility as they decide how many lives they can save and how many they must sacrifice to maintain the illusion that the German code remains unbroken. And once the war is over, the co-conspirators are told to burn their work and never contact each other again.
Back in 1952, Alan is convicted of indecency and opts for chemical castration rather than imprisonment so he can continue his work on Christopher. Only a year later, he kills himself at the age of 41. We the audience are left with the knowledge that Alan Turing’s work led to the development of the modern computer, as well as the implicit question “What else could he have done if he’d had the time?”
First off, let me say that this film was beautifully cast without a single false note. The mental chemistry between Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley is electric, even though there’s no romantic connection whatsoever. The supporting cast help create a vividly realistic world, a world where right and wrong are subjective, where morality is decided by the winning side, where personal feelings mean nothing and everything in the grand scope of things.
The Imitation Game is full of decisions large and small. One of the cryptographers, Cairncross, is a spy working with the Russians. Alan is asked to leak information to be passed along, which he reluctantly agrees to — a decision that I’m sure contributed in no small part to the Cold War.
Then there’s Joan, the only female cryptographer. When her parents insist that she return home, Alan proposes to her because A) he needs her for the project, and B) she’s the only person in the world who understands him and likes him for it. But after Cairncross threatens to reveal his homosexuality to the program director, Alan tells her he’s a homosexual, breaks off their engagement, and tries to send her away so she’ll be safe.
This deeply personal decision hurts Joan at the time, but it hurts Alan himself even more later on when he’s found guilty of indecency. If he’d had a wife, it’s possible he could have fought the charges and lived his life peacefully, albeit under a cloud of suspicion. But for a man who lived in self-imposed isolation, that would hardly have been a difficult punishment to bear.
One of the reasons I find it hard to analyze nonfiction is because I catch myself criticizing the narrator’s life choices. Why didn’t she stop the man she loved from walking out of her life? Why didn’t he go after his pipe dream instead of the humdrum situation in front of him? Why turn left instead of right? Why agree when disagreeing, while harder and with more consequences, can eventually have a much more optimistic outcome?
In this case, we must remember that The Imitation Game is, in fact, only an imitation of life. Turing’s motivations may have been different, or events might have been slightly altered to appeal to commercial audiences. So instead of focusing on Alan Turing the man, we have to look at Alan Turing the character. And the character, while flawed in many respects, was a man who had no need for people’s love and respect — no matter how much he might want it — because his work was the only part of his life that mattered.
His friend Christopher gave him a book of codes when they were schoolboys. They passed codes back and forth in school, a medium that Alan eventually intended to use to tell Christopher of his affections. Christopher never made it back from holidays, which left Alan with a drive to (in my opinion, anyway) reclaim that personal connection. Alan may not have made friends easily, but when he did, he did so with some trepidation, then with his whole heart.
Sure, some social nuances might have been lost on him. No, he didn’t know when a woman wanted him to talk to her, or when people were inviting him to lunch. But as much as others thought him to be a cold, unfeeling machine, he did understand their feelings and motivations. Unlike them, though, he was able to set personal feelings aside and focus on the bigger picture — because big decisions mattered more than the everyday ones.
It’s entirely possible I’m projecting all of this onto Alan Turing because I want to find the best in everyone. But it’s also possible I’m completely right. As part of his story, Turing asks the questioning detective to play a thesis of his, The Imitation Game. He wants to know if he’s a man or a machine. The detective is unable to answer, which distresses Alan greatly. But for a man who has spent most of his life trying to ignore what people say or think about him, this doesn’t make sense.
…Unless it’s one of those rare occasions where Alan is focused on a personal decision that means nothing to the world and everything to him. It shouldn’t matter whether people decide he’s a hero or a monster, but in this case it does, because for once he can’t make the decision himself.
The Imitation Game can have a lot of aboutnesses. It can be about unusual people struggling for acceptance in a rigid world. It can be about defying people’s expectations and proving we’re better than the ideas or personas projected onto us. It can be about social responsibility, about the twin faces of morality, about the dark side of history that’s hidden by the winning side to seem more socially acceptable. And really, it’s probably about all of those things in some measure.
But to me, much as those aboutnesses all make sense in varying degrees, I choose to fasten my opinions on this: decisions make us who we are, and they make the world what it is. There’s no way to know whether our choices will shape things for better or for worse, but all we can do is hold fast to our ideals and to our sense of self, and hope to God that it’ll be enough to make things turn out all right.
It’s not the most feel-good message of the year, but I think it’s the most realistic. And in a world where everything is digital and artificial and mechanical, I think we can do with a little humanity: man, not machine.
Final Grade: A+
- Don’t tell an eccentric genius to write to the prime minister for permission to do something. You just know he’ll do it.
- After seeing Allen Leech as Tom Branson in Downton Abbey, it was both amazing and heartbreaking to see him play Cairncross. I do not appreciate him messing with people, especially Benedict Cumberbatch.
- I’m always surprised and delighted when I see Mark Strong in things. I always picture him as Septimus in Stardust and expect him to start murdering everyone in his path.
- Turing developed a machine that would eventually link humanity to the greatest repository of knowledge in history, which would in turn bring his work to public light. So when you think about it, burning his notes didn’t do any good because he did his job so well that we were all eventually going to find out about it anyway.
- In case you were wondering, no, the symmetry of me writing this review on a laptop computer is not lost on me. Thanks, Alan. That is all.