The Imitation Game (2014): Written by Graham Moore, directed by Morten Tyldum. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, and Rory Kinnear. Running Time: 114 minutes.
**in case you know nothing of the life of Alan Turing, and wish to see the film without knowing anything that happens beforehand, which is not the worst idea in the world in this instance, this review contains many spoilers. No other way for me to really talk about what works/doesn’t work without being maddeningly vague.**
Some of you may recall that I referred to Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice-over role as Smaug in the second Hobbit film as his best performance of 2013, and I still stand by that statement. He became ubiquitous last year, appearing in nearly half a dozen screen roles, while also coming dangerously close to breaking the internet with a particularly shameless scene from Sherlock. Sadly, many of the films ended up being not terribly good, or had a shockingly awful ending, or were just plain average, while his presence in the otherwise excellent Best-Picture-Winner 12 Years A Slave was spared the ignominy of being the film’s most out-of-place casting choice only by the late appearance of Brad Pitt’s hilariously awful stab at a Canadian accent. This year he is testing the awards waters again, but this time around with the much sturdier choice of a historical biopic set in the Second World War, which, if the term “Oscar Bait” were a black hole, would form the singularity at the very center. Thankfully, Alan Turing- a misunderstood and emotionally tortured yet singularly brilliant genius, whose utter lack of people skills and seeming absence of human empathy caused many people to hate him like a particularly virulent strain of the Black Death- turns out to be a much better fit for Cumberbatch’s unique talents than a southern plantation owner. I can't possibly fathom why.
First, the story, for those of you who are not familiar with the Tragic Tale of Turing; Alan Turing, a math prodigy (or “maths,” as Britons still insist on calling it) was hired shortly after the war began to join a team of elite codebreakers with the sole task of cracking Enigma, the system used by the Germans to encode every single radio message they send involving troop movements, battle plans, etc. The concept of cracking it is not that difficult- one merely has to test all possible combinations within the system- but since there are millions upon millions upon millions of possible solutions, and the entire system is reset every single night at midnight, there is nowhere near enough time for a team of human minds, no matter how sharp, to crack more than a few messages in a given day. Hence the need for an alternative solution.
Turing had worked in the past on theories regarding the development a machine that would have the mechanical capacity to handle the calculations needed for just such a scenario, and despite opposition from others within his team (and from his constantly irate higher-ups), he pursues this objective with single-minded furor, eventually winning the respect and admiration from the others on his team and the precious friendship of the group’s lone female (to whom he briefly becomes engaged), Joan Clarke, who had to fight through her own barriers to get there. After several years, they are successful in building the first of what come to be called “Turing Machines” (or as they are called today, “digital computers”), and are able to figure out the daily combinations of Enigma almost instantly. It is estimated that the intelligence gleaned in this way shortened the war (the European war, that is) by as much as two years, saving tens of millions of additional lives in the process.
That is only part of the story being told, however. In one of the film’s few moments of truly clever storytelling, much of the beginning is broken up between the war years, Turing’s childhood (when he was turned on to codebreaking), and his post-war years, when his homosexuality (still illegal at that time) was discovered by the law, leading to a sentence forcing him to undergo chemical castration, a process that ultimately broke him and led him to commit suicide at 41. The edits between the different phases of his life are very well done, and will pack a decent punch for anyone who genuinely doesn’t know how the story will end
It very is a typical historical biopic in this sense- slickly made and very well acted (the cast is excellent through and through), but very formulaic in its style and presentation, even including the scenes where Turing is first betrayed, and then stuck up for by his team of codebreakers later on, and numerous lines regarding his tastes and character there solely to be brought back as one-shot punchlines later on. All of that was to be expected though. What does drag are the sometimes rather random cuts to either reels of actual news footage, or digitally-enhanced flash shots of the aftermath of real battles, starkly tinted in such a way that none of them would look out of place in a Medal of Honor cut scene. The effect is similar to if the otherwise-solid The King’s Speech had randomly spliced in clips from Ken Burns’ WWII documentary series.
That the scenes do not gel at all with the rest of the film is problematic enough, but they also tend to cut away the support of the biggest emotional punch the film has- as Turing points out in his narration, once they cracked the code, they then had to make the excruciating choice to not reveal even some of the most devastating attacks planned, since acting on more than a certain amount of intelligence (they use cold statistics to determine exactly how much) would quickly alert the Germans to the fact that Enigma has been cracked, and they would have to start from scratch yet again. The first scene where they realize this is a powerful testament to how the horrors of war can stretch far beyond the battlefield, and cutting to scenes of actual battle actually lessens their effect in a number of cases.
However, as with any decent biopic, the linchpin is whether or not Cumberbatch is able to effectively bring across the triumphs and struggles of Alan Turing, and his performance alone is more than enough reason to see this movie. The man can deliver a lot of emotion, and this time around, he finally has a character and script that give him the tools he needs. And despite the expected inaccuracies, it is a welcome window onto a remarkable tale of one of the most important minds of the last century, someone who has only recently begun to receive his historical due. It is far from my favorite film of the year, but I am grateful for its presence.