Friday, January 23, 2015

The Imitation Game / **** (PG-13)

Alan Turing: Benedict Cumberbatch
Joan Clarke: Keira Knightley
Hugh Alexander: Matthew Goode
Detective Robert Nock: Rory Kinnear
John Craincross: Allen Leech
Commander Denniston: Charles Dance
Stewart Menzies: Mark Strong

The Weinstein Company presents a film directed by Morten Tyldum. Written by Graham Moore. Based on the book “Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges. Running time: 114 min. Rated PG-13 (for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking).

There is a certain type of movie that has historically been a favorite of the voting body of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The Academy has always liked true stories with historical value about a real person. Movies about World War II and undermining the Nazis get some favor. They also seem to have a soft spot for topical issues, like homosexuality. While the more extravagant—and less typical—films “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Birdman: or (The Exquisite Virtue of Ignorance)” were busy racking up 9 nominations each for this year’s Oscars, the Weinstein Brothers quietly brought home 8 nominations for the more typical Oscar fare “The Imitation Game”. Always in the talk of the best movies of the year, but never really stirring up much passion from critics, “The Imitation Game” is a glowing example of the formula for bringing in Oscar nods. It tells an amazing story about a somewhat unknown figure who had a profound impact on the outcome of WWII and modern technology as we know it, and it tells it with layers of commentary more typical of genre films than your standard Oscar drama fare.

The movie centers on an interview of Turing by a police detective after Turing’s 1951 arrest for indecency. Although the detective’s case turned up Turing’s homosexuality—a crime in England at the time—the detective always suspected there was a bigger secret behind Turing’s secrecy about himself. It turns out the detective was on to something.

Flashing forward and back through time in a confusing manner at first, but made sense in the end by the way the filmmakers tell Turing’s story, “The Imitation Game” is a surprisingly suspenseful war film for a biography of a homosexual who constructs what is essentially the world’s first computer in an epic and fraught effort to crack the German’s secret code machine known as the Enigma. The Enigma allowed the German army to communicate over open radio waves—for all to hear—with encoded messages that required an Enigma machine to decode. Although the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) had obtained an Enigma device, it was necessary to work out the code key to decipher the transmissions. The brightest minds in Britain were certainly capable of this, however the Germans changed the key every day at midnight, thus requiring the British team to start from scratch every single day to decipher a code that has so many possible variations it could take decades to solve even once.

Turing is hired in a last ditch effort for the Brits in one of the more uncomfortable jobs interviews in history. Benedict Cumberbatch, of BBC television’s “Sherlock” fame, plays the abrasively awkward Turing. Turing is a mathematical genius but so socially out of touch it remains to be seen whether he can work with anyone, let alone a team of nearly like-minded geniuses. Unlike his Sherlock role, his social ineptness doesn’t come across as arrogance so much, he simply tells everything as he sees it, without reading or giving any social cues to filter anything. A scene in which he’s asked to lunch by the team exemplifies his social deficiencies clearly.

Of course, Turing’s homosexuality plays an important role in the film’s lessons about how we fear what we don’t understand. However, Graham Moore’s screenplay doesn’t present it as simply as that, nor does he restrict his definitions of “the different” to homosexuality. In fact, the homosexuality issue stays mostly in the background for the majority of the film’s running time. The filmmakers include in their examples of different people—women, mathematicians, even blue collar workers, who are where Turing turns when he fires two of his team members after getting Winston Churchill himself to promote him to the leader of the team.

Well before any suffragette movement in England, one of the people Turing recruits is Joan Clarke. Keira Knightley plays Clarke as an anchor for Turing. Not only emotionally, but also as a reality check. He is not the only one who is different. In fact, a woman’s involvement in intelligent work was so different, she wasn’t actually allowed to be on his team, she had to pose as part of the installation’s office pool while Turing would bring her pages of code after hours to work.

Director Morten Tyldum builds his story more like a fiction drama than a traditional biography by presenting a patchwork of relevant material from three different points in Turing’s life—his childhood in academy, his work on the Enigma device, and the events surrounding his arrest and conviction for indecency. Each period of his life informs the others. Turing’s own emotional detachment from humanity, combined with his treatment as an outcast, builds him into what he sees as a monster; when in fact, his choice to build a machine to break the Enigma code changed the course of humanity in more ways than one.

Beyond honoring the accomplishments of this man, who much of the world didn’t even know existed until he was pardoned for his crime by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013 in consideration of the great impact he had on the outcome of WWII, Tyldum’s film also extends its focus to modern issues that continue to resonate, such as the equality of women in the workplace, the bigotry shown toward homosexuals and a general fear of what we as humans don’t understand about each other. The film is not merely a biography, but also a social commentary about humanity. Fear of those we don’t understand could be detrimental to our progress as a species. Only through an attempt to include those who don’t fit in with what we admire about ourselves do we move forward as a species. Now, that’s quite a legacy for a man who was chemically castrated by the very government he helped save at its darkest hour without any public credit.

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