The Imitation Game
Special to The History Place
Benedict Cumberbatch is quickly becoming my favorite actor. I first encountered him as a young, modern-day Sherlock Holmes in a television series. He popped up again as George Smiley’s right-hand-man in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He achieves star status as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.
Turing was at once a genuine World War II hero, one of the true parents of the computer, and a profoundly tragic figure. Turing and his team at Bletchley Park broke the Nazis’ Enigma code, a feat that – perhaps as much as Churchill’s iron resolve – saw a beleaguered Britain through the war. Keira Knightly brings a touch of glamour to the Turing team. Also notable in the film’s cast is Allen Leech, best known to us as the Irish in-law who runs the Downton Abbey estate.
The Enigma story has been told many, many times. Notably, the Robert Harris novel Enigma became a film of the same name in 2001. Rolling Stone Mick Jagger, himself arguably an enigma, co-produced and helped fund that film. He even reportedly provided his own personal Enigma machine. The story was loosely based on an actual event, the sudden change of the German U-boat codebooks just when the U.S. had multiple convoys of supplies in the North Atlantic en route to England.
Alan Turning and Bletchley figure big in Neal Stephenson’s 2000 novel Cryptonomicon. In that ambitious fictional account, Turing comes across as a clever, easygoing, carefree wizard. In fact he was anything but carefree or easy going, as Cumberbatch’s far more realistic portrayal reveals.
The film focuses, as expected, on the cracking of the Enigma code. But it shifts back and forth across Turing’s brief 41 years, portraying his childhood in an English public school and the post-war years in which he’s convicted of “indecency.” From Victorian times, England outlawed male homosexuality. (The story has it that Queen Victoria had no idea that women could be gay and none of her ministers were so indelicate as to tell her so. Consequently, the law outlawing same-sex relationships applied only to men.)
The Keira Knightly character, Joan Clarke, who helps Turing work out the solution to breaking Enigma, was real enough. And, indeed, she and Turing were extremely close, so much so that he proposed marriage. Turing subsequently revealed his sexual orientation to her, a revelation that left her unphased. Nonetheless, he declined to go through with the marriage.
The film does a nice job of depicting the moral dilemma that breaking the code presented. The Allies were unable to fully exploit the intelligence gleaned from their breakthrough without tipping the Germans off to their success. Consequently, they were forced to decide which intelligence would be exploited and which ignored, even though this meant condemning some soldiers, sailors and airmen to their deaths.
All the same, the movie’s postscript informs us that historians credit Bletchley with shortening the war by two years, saving an estimated 14 million lives.
For Turing, the post-war years were few and tragic. Homosexuality remained a crime. His sexual preference revealed by a young liaison, he was convicted and given a choice: jail or hormone therapy. He chose the latter with catastrophic results. In the film he’s shown shaking and unable to focus on his work. In reality, he was not only chemically “castrated,” but also grew breasts. A year into the court-ordered “therapy” he killed himself.
His scientific legacy is equal to his wartime contributions. Computers were called Turing Machines for years, and with good reason. The film’s title is derived from what is also known as the Turing Test: If a judge in one room, communicating with a sentient being in another, cannot discern whether he is talking to another human or to a machine, then, if it’s a machine, that machine is indeed an artificial intelligence.
In the closing scene, Joan visits Alan during the throws of his hormonal treatment. He observes her wedding ring and comments that she has achieved a “normal life.” She asks him would he really have wanted to be normal, if it meant giving up his achievements. He hesitates and she replies that she would not have wanted that for him, or for the world. I can only agree.
The postscript also informs us that in 2013 Queen Elizabeth granted him a pardon in recognition of his incalculable contributions. That hardly seems sufficient.
As for Cumberbatch, I smell an Oscar on the wind.
Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking.
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Dr. Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer, consultant and writer, whose webpage is https://jamescastagnera.wordpress.com/. His most recent book is Handbook for Student Law for Higher Education Administrators (Revised Edition 2014).