“The Imitation Game” A Tale of Two Enigmas
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Psst! I’ll share this with you, but please don’t tell any of my not-so-smart friends that I gave “The Imitation Game” a positive review. I won’t hear the end of it: ‘You gave that gibberish a three? What a bore…all those English eggheads, hardly any action, full of that stuff about problem solving and arithmetic. I want to be entertained. I don’t want to go to school. What were they talking about, anyway? Geez…you film critics.’
Of course we intellects will know exactly what this cryptic group of British cryptographers, circa WWII, is up to…well, at least the M.I.T. grads among us. The rest will astutely take it on faith that director Morten Tyldum, working from Graham Moore’s adaptation of Andrew Hodges’s book, factually informs how Alan Turing and his code busters outsmarted the German Enigma Machine. Effectively shortening the war and saving millions of lives, it is a fascinating slice of history, heroic indeed, but alas, not without its terribly sad asterisk.
Benedict Cumberbatch, now suddenly catapulted from reliable, workaday actor to thespic magnifico, portrays Mr. Turing, college professor, acknowledged math genius and stereotypical geek. Introverted to a delightful fault, he is a wonderful embodiment of that favorite cliché…the genius as oddball. Whether the result of his cerebral acumen or that which inspired it, he is decidedly asocial…prone to take things literally and practically incapable of understanding the concept of joking. On the other hand, he is an invaluable, nay, indispensable, asset to society.
We get our first glimpse of the mental wrestling match that can result from dealings with such a personality when Alan interviews with Charles Dance’s Commander Denniston, head of M16 (the UK equivalent of the CIA) at Bletchley Park. It’s a chess game…comical at the outset. Alan wins round one and gets the job. But future relations will be fraught with allegation and distrust, primarily on the commander’s part. Mr. Turing, an inveterate puzzle solver, just wants to work…but like too many geniuses before him, must suffer the fools who deem him dangerous.
Undaunted, essentially fighting his own war on two fronts, he rolls up his sleeves and goes to it, aided by his handpicked group of mathematical brains, nowhere near as bright as he is, but smart enough to know that if anyone can break the Nazi’s Enigma Machine, it’s Alan Turing. It gets pretty complex, but director Tyldum, realizing his film’s validity ultimately depends on it, more or less successfully convinces us that we comprehend what gives. Picture wall-sized, primitive computers, wires everywhere, wheels spinning, and talk of algorithms. Yeah, I understood it.
Of course, even though immersed in obscure, cutting edge calculations with the life and death stakes so high, it is important that humans find time to be, uh, human. Hence it entertainingly follows, embellished with only a bit of filmic license, that Alan strikes up a relationship with Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke, kindred spirit and the only gal among the covert group of would-be decipherers. The unorthodox romance is its own sort of enchanting while also important to the story’s inherent piece of secrecy. A grave injustice awaits.
Matching Mr. Cumberbatch’s excellence, Miss Knightley’s lady mathematician supplies a moral sounding board to the hifalutin doings and, I romantically speculate, a cheering section if not a full afflatus to Alan Turing’s super-strenuous enciphering. Also acquitting himself smartly is Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander, Turing’s handsome second in command, a seemingly normal sort among brainiacs and, according to Joan, a bit of a flirty cad. Rounding out the main players, Charles Dance is solid as the patriotic but stodgy, regulation-bound martinet.
Now, although “The Imitation Game” presents a fairly accurate account of the temper and times it explores, replete with blips of wartime footage, the main focus is a witty meditation on that phenomenon known as the hero in history. In the more fanciful ideal of our civilization, we like to think that for every Hitler there arrives a Turing to keep us from spinning out of orbit. This informal case study of such a being, complete with attending baggage, celebrates the idea. While not first and foremost a defender of king and country, it’s apparent Alan is instinctively good.
Much of this is a lot of fun, especially if the notion of the smart kid outwitting the playground bully pleases your sensibilities. But oh, that aforementioned injustice…cynically affirming that no good deed goes unpunished. Its ramifications, witnessed with contemporary eyes and emotions, impose a finger-wagging, subtextual message that must cast a bitter shadow on the glorious doings. We mortals are the puzzle. A harsh lesson in tolerance, “The Imitation Game’s” genuine reflection of humanity’s ambiguity will have you tsk, tsk tsking all the way home.
“The Imitation Game,” rated PG-13, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Morten Tyldum and stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and Charles Dance. Running time: 114 minutes