Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Premise: Based on a true story. During World War II, British mathematician Alan Turing leads a team of cryptologists in developing a machine that will break the German enigma code.
What Works: World War II is one of the topics that’s been so thoroughly explored in cinema that it’s difficult for filmmakers to find anything new to say about the topic but the cast and crew of The Imitation Game have managed to do that. The Imitation Game dramatizes the efforts of Alan Turing and his coworkers to develop a machine that will break the German enigma code and in the process they make discoveries and advancements that lay the groundwork for computer technology. There is an inherent challenge to this film because it does not have the visceral and violent moments that give other war movies their opportunities for tension and heroism. This is a story about a team constructing a computer in a warehouse and yet it is still very exciting. The filmmakers convey what is at stake in the success of the project and they are able to present complex ideas in a very accessible way. However, The Imitation Game is not so much about the efforts of the team as it is about the life and work of Alan Turing and as such the movie is Benedict Cumberbatch’s show. Cumberbatch typically plays characters who are the smartest guy in the room but who are also socially maladjusted. His performance in The Imitation Game takes that formula to its extreme with Turing frequently and obnoxiously speaking down to his coworkers. But Cumberbatch and the rest of the filmmakers are able to overcome that arrogance and make Turing empathetic. First, they make his outbursts so socially obtuse that the audience laughs while they cringe. Secondly, Turing’s background earns our sympathy. While working on the government project he recognizes a woman (Keira Knightley) who has more potential to assist the project that any of his male counterparts and he petitions for her to be included on the team despite the institutionalized sexism of the time. The film also flashes backward to show a young Turing being bullied as a young man and encountering and later losing his first love. Those moments put us on his side and give the adult Turing a lot of latitude with the audience. Lastly, the filmmakers qualify his genius, giving credibility to his arrogance. That combination makes The Imitation Game a well-considered character study and Cumberbatch is the best thing in it.
What Doesn’t: The Imitation Game is primarily about Alan Turing’s efforts to break the Nazi enigma code but the title also refers to Turing’s efforts to conceal his homosexuality. The movie meshes these themes together pretty well except when it gets to the ending. The film concludes by dramatizing Turing’s public exposure as a homosexual, which was against the law in Britain at that time. However, the legal action taken against him and the fallout in his personal and professional life deserves a more thorough treatment than it is given here. The filmmakers rush through all of that and summarize the last years of Turing’s life with a brief post-script that should have been more fully dramatized. Turing’s attempt to conceal his sexual orientation needs that payoff. Without it the film’s depiction of draconian intolerance toward gays is perfunctory. And that leads to the other problem with the film’s dramatization of Turing’s sexual orientation. Had this movie been made twenty years ago it would have been a much bolder statement. To condemn homophobia now, when mainstream viewers are much more accepting toward gays, isn’t nearly as challenging.
Bottom Line: The Imitation Game is a very good movie with a stellar performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. The politics of the story aren’t as provocative as the filmmakers would have us believe but it is a well told character study.
Episode: #525 (January 18, 2015)