|Benedict Cumberbatch cracks the code in The Imitation Game.|
««1/2 The Imitation Game. Written by Graham Moore, based on the book by Andrew Hodges. Directed by Morten Tyldum. At selected theaters.
The appearance of high-gloss bio-pics about scientists is the best evidence yet of the peaking cultural cachet of nerdiness. Along with the Stephen Hawking story in The Theory of Everything, we now have The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum's account of the brilliant, sad career of British mathematician Alan Turing.
The "human interest" hook with Hawking is his lifelong struggle with the disease that has left him a prisoner in his own body. Turing led the team that broke Nazi Germany's Enigma code—a key step in assuring Allied victory in World War II; he also laid much of the theoretical groundwork for modern computer science. But he was a closeted gay man at a time when homosexuality was a crime in Britain. His punishment for "indecency" is widely supposed (but never proven) to be the reason he committed suicide in 1952. That outrageous contrast—the genius and war hero unjustly persecuted merely for whom he loves—has made Turing a secular saint in these times.
From a certain point of view, whether Hawking is crippled or Turing a victim of homophobia shouldn't really figure in our interest in them. Turing's work for British intelligence is said to have shortened the war by two full years and saved 14 million lives. Hawking has made seminal contributions to our understanding of the universe. In a better kind of world, such towering intellectual achievements would alone be enough to make these men fascinating. But we don't live in that world, and the story of saving 14 million lives isn't necessarily worth telling without the subsequent, tawdry downfall. Nerdiness may be cool, but ideas still aren't.
The irascible Hawking would no doubt tell us where to stick our "human interest" for his plight—he prefers to be remembered for his science, not for being a disabled scientist. No doubt Turing would also object to going down in history as "that mopey gay codebreaker."
The Imitation Game is a well-crafted work of reverential biography that takes absolutely no chances with Turing's complex legacy. The script by Graham Moore presents him as the usual genius with precious few social skills, alienating everyone around him as he almost single-handedly drags Britain to victory. Benedict Cumberbatch—who seems to be everywhere these days—is poignant and convincing in the lead. While Keira Knightley seems to be here purely as evidence of Turing's orientation (as in "anybody not interested in her must truly be gay"), she's also fresh in a way none of the other actors (Matthew Goode, Downton Abbey's Allen Leech) manage.
Unfortunately, everything about The Imitation Game seems tailored not to upset anyone. Turing's identity as a gay man is invested entirely in a chaste schoolboy crush he had on a fellow student—an experience he likely had in common with a good number of not-so-gay English males at the time. Tyldum never risks rattling the teacups by presenting the adult Turing in the act of being intimate with an adult man. In that sense, the movie seems every bit as uneasy with homosexuality as the benighted era it depicts.
For American audiences, there should be an extra level of ambivalence attached to Turing's career. After his team cracked the Enigma code, the British government didn't trust their American allies to keep that fact secret. Turing was obliged to lie to his US counterparts, keeping them in the dark about technology that might have saved thousands of American lives. Of course, when there are American Oscars to win, Tyldum dares not touch any of that.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro