The most disappointing thing about the Oscar-nominated film The Imitation Game can be summed up in the way that Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician played by Benedict Cumberbatch, answers his boss, Commander Denniston, when Denniston asks him why he needs to build a machine to crack the Germans’ unbreakable code.
“It’s highly technical,” Turing says, dismissive. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Turing may as well have been speaking to the audience, not just his sneering commander, because for a movie about a technological pioneer making a technological breakthrough, The Imitation Game barely deals with technology at all.
Instead of an inventor, it shows a stereotype. Instead of a machine, it shows an obsession. And instead of inspiring us to follow in the footsteps of a person who shaped technology, the film inspires us only to get out of the way of the next genius who can.
As a movie, The Imitation Game is beautiful. As a missed opportunity, it’s sad. At a time when we need to take power over the technology that runs our lives—think privacy, hackers, net neutrality, surveillance—The Imitation Game gets the perfect subject and tells the wrong story.
First, to Turing.
The Alan Turing of The Imitation Game matches our era’s stubborn stereotype of the awkward and isolated computer scientist.
“I’m afraid these men will only slow me down,” the film’s Turing tells Denniston when the commander tells him to work together with the other members of his team at Britain’s Bletchley Park. Right in front of them, of course.
But the stereotype fits too well. The Imitation Game changed aspects of the real Alan Turing’s personality to conform more closely to our idea of the solitary nerd. The real Alan Turing could be warm and funny, his colleagues have said. And he worked with his team from the beginning, unlike the arrogant Turing of the film who stumbles into collaboration only after another character, Joan Clarke (played by Kiera Knightley), tells him it’s the only way he can finish his work.
Stereotypes are useful as a kind of shortcut: The more we feel we know a character, the faster we can get to the drama. And so the film fudged the details so the picture was familiar. The result? The Imitation Game falls in line with the tired idea that only outcasts could love computers, rather than the reality that one of the pioneers of the field was a shy but nice enough guy who could work in a team.
As for explaining the science behind Turing’s code-breaking machine, the movie doesn’t bother. Other than a couple broad allusions to what we now know as a computer—an “electronic brain,” in one quick scene—we are given no idea how this thing works.
In a couple scenes the tech talk is just ending as we come in, and we catch the last bit of a sentence before the movie moves us on from “highly technical” things we couldn’t possibly understand. In one scene, mathematical formulas are visible for an instant on a café table between Turing and Clarke before their colleagues’ entrance changes the subject.
Skimming the science isn’t a big deal in most films that have it in the background. In many, the science is silent because it’s bad science, a plot device to justify extraordinary circumstances. But if invention doesn’t deserve top billing in this story, where the technology at its heart is not only historically significant but hugely resonant in our lives today, then I don’t know where it would.
You don’t need to understand what Turing did, the movie seems to say. You only need to appreciate it.
No sequence is more telling on this point than the montage that shows Turing beginning to design his machine. Shots of him working at his desk are cut with shots of him jogging. He draws some dots in circles. Runs. Draws more circle dots. Runs again. Stares at a wall full of pinned-up dots in circles. Runs faster than ever.
There’s a race against the clock element to the code-breakers’ work. Allied soldiers and sailors are dying every day they don’t crack it. But the jogging shots are all that give those work shots meaning, because without them, it would be too obvious that they have none. The movie doesn’t tell us what the circles of dots means because it doesn’t bother to seek drama in the actual work of invention. We have no idea what Alan Turing is doing and barely realize it.
All the movie needs us to know is that it’s very important, and very, very hard.
In real life, Turing’s code-breaking machine was called the Bombe. In the film, it’s called “Christopher.”
Christopher Morcom is the name of a close friend and supposed early love interest who died while they were in school. The movie chose to carry this biographical tidbit all the way to the machine in Bletchley Park. Why?
To paint a portrait of Turing’s machine as his singular obsession.
The real Alan Turing built his machine with help. A man named Gordon Welchman made a significant improvement to it. In The Imitation Game, Welchman does not exist and colleagues enter the barn where Turing tinkers with Christopher like they would enter the lived-in art studio of a fragile eccentric. The filmmakers, who saw the replica of the actual Bombe in England, ran more red wires through the machine to resemble nerves and blood—that’s how sentimental they wanted to make this.
“What happens now?” one of Turing’s colleagues asks when Turing turns the machine on. The question is a plot driver: Here, at least, the movie bothers to explain something about the machine to the audience (as blandly as possible: It “should work out the day’s Enigma settings,” Turing responds). But the question also shows Turing’s obsession with his machine for the fiction it is. If they’d finally come around to working with Turing on this thing, and wouldn’t they know just a little bit about it?
Earlier in the film, when colleague Hugh Alexander tries to break the machine over its belief that it does no good, Turing’s invented mad scientist persona emerges. “My machine will work,” he tells Alexander, brimming with conviction but offering no explanation, absolutely no case. Later, when Denniston turns off the machine and threatens to fire him, Turing explodes: “You will never understand the importance of what I’m creating here!”
At the end of the film, Joan Clarke, Turing’s straight love interest and former fiancee (it’s complicated) finds him broken from the hormone therapy the government forced on him for being homosexual. “Alan, you do not have to do this alone,” she tells him. “I’m not alone,” he says. Behind him is another machine, another Christopher, taking up half a room.
You don’t have to obsess over your work to make it great. It just makes it more entertaining.
A ROLE MODEL
Here’s the crux of the problem I’m trying to describe: The Imitation Game gives us Alan Turing the hero when what we need is Alan Turing the role model.
The message of the movie is that the uncommon man can do amazing things, but the message we need is that the common man, woman, anybody can and should tinker with the technology that manages our whole world.
To dramatize the hero, you have to dramatize the heroic act. To place Turing into a hero narrative, The Imitation Game brought the historical Turing closer to his machine, farther away from his colleagues and into a stereotypical personality that puts him and his achievements at a greater distance from us and what we imagine for ourselves.
I believe that the movie set out to make people appreciate Turing, but did not set out to make people believe they can be Alan Turing. It doesn’t think we’d want to. It doesn’t think it’d be any fun. It doesn’t think we’d understand.
And that is a damned shame.