The Imitation Game
Secrets haunt us like spirits half seen. They're everywhere, it seems—behind closet doors and in secret drawers, redacted from memos and left out of meeting minutes, whisperings in our own minds. We lock our secrets behind thick walls of surreptitious silence, but still they sneak out sometimes. A dropped hint here, a mistake there. Even our very language—layered, coded—can give up the game, each inflection a clue, each gesture or twitch a tell.
Secrets are particularly pervasive in wartime, and Nazi Germany during World War II has a slew of them. Troop movements, bombing runs and weather reports are all hidden in plain sight—behind the mighty wall of Enigma, Hitler's beautifully complex code machine. Each day the Germans fire off hundreds of missives—perfectly legible for those who have the day's special code, but perfect gibberish for those listening in. Each day the code changes. Even if someone cracks Enigma one day—a nearly impossible task in itself, given the 159 million million million potential settings to the machine—there's a new code to solve the next.
But the Brits are feverishly working to crack Enigma anyway, and they've brought in a stellar team of cryptographic all-stars to do it. Alan Turing—a brilliant but socially slovenly mathematician—is among them. "I like solving problems," he tells the stern Commander Denniston during his interview. "And Enigma is the most difficult problem in the war." So confident is he in his abilities that he suggests firing the rest of the team and letting him work alone so they don't slow him down.
"Popular at school, were we?" Denniston quips.
Since Enigma's a machine, Turing reasons, why not build a machine to understand it? Why not build a machine that can read and solve any encrypted message from Germany almost instantly? Sure, it sounds improbable, even impossible. It's the 1940s, not the 1990s. But Turing insists it can be done. He believes, given a little time and a lot of money (and maybe even help from his team), he can force the Nazis to spill their secrets.
But Turing has secrets of his own. And they may undo everything.
[Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
The Imitation Game is based on the true story of Alan Turing and the other cryptographers stationed at Bletchley Park (a super-secret locale in England that masqueraded as a radio factory). It's no spoiler to say that Turing and his team were indeed successful in cracking Enigma, and the secrets they learned were instrumental in winning World War II. According to a closing slide, Turing's work shortened the war by two years and saved 14 million lives. That makes Turing and his team bona fide, if unlikely, heroes. The fact that Turing's machine became the basis for the computer? Well, that's just icing on the silicon cake.
They faced some serious obstacles, too. Joan, one of Turing's main confidants (and, for a time, fiancée), is a woman who joins the whiz team despite societal, familial and sexist pressures to be a secretary. And when the government wants to shut down the computer project, Turing's colleagues, at the risk of their jobs, rally around their prickly boss to buy them all another month.
Let me bring up one more element here that, while not categorically positive, can spark some really thoughtful, positive discussion: When the team finally breaks Enigma's web of codes, they're presented with a first-class ethical dilemma. They can immediately save a convoy filled with hundreds of people, including women and children and even a brother of one of the code breakers. But they know that if they do, the Germans will realize Enigma's been compromised … and immediately alter all of their communications.
They eventually let the convoy go down, and Turing formulates a ruthless but arguably necessary formula of when to act on Enigma's secrets—enough to help in sometimes dramatic ways but not so obviously that the Germans get suspicious. "[Our job] is not to save one convoy," Turing says. "Our job is to win the war." Undoubtedly, those decisions and actions (and inactions) cost lives. But they also saved lives—a fact that Joan reminds Turing of after the war. She rattles off the people she met that day who would likely be dead had they not done what they did.
When the team cracks Enigma and realizes that they now know the exact location of every ship in the war, cryptographer Hugh Alexander says he believes their little five-member team now has more power than God. The same sentiment is later echoed by Turing. "God didn't win the war," he says. "We did."
A Soviet spy uses a Bible verse—Matthew 7:7—as the basis for a coded message he sends.
It becomes known to some of his peers and eventually the world that Alan Turing had actively adopted a homosexual lifestyle. We see flashbacks of him as a bullied schoolboy, befriended by another boy named Christopher. The two become quite close and, while it never appears their relationship went beyond friendship, Turing writes a coded note to Christopher confessing his love. Christopher never gets the note, but the relationship was so formative that Turing nicknames his Enigma-cracking machine "Christopher."
He asks Joan to marry him primarily because he wants her to stay on the team. (Joan is about to go back home because she's a 25-year-old single woman, and her parents think it's high time she concentrate on marriage.) When Turing reveals his sexual predilections, she's not overly surprised and suggests they get married anyway. "We'll have each other's company," she says. "We'll have each other's minds. That's a better marriage than most." Turing ultimately rejects the idea.
He admits that he's had affairs with other men before working on the Enigma project. Then, in 1951, his secret unspools in public when a would-be thief is revealed to be Turing's lover. Police call Turing and his lover "poofs," expressing disgust. Turing, questioned by the authorities, admits that he had asked another man to touch him sexually. Because homosexuality is a crime, he's subsequently convicted of "gross indecency" and given a choice between going to prison or undergoing hormonal therapy, the latter being designed to either curb or deaden his sexual urges. He chooses what he calls "chemical castration," even though it makes him shake so violently he can't even complete a crossword puzzle.
Conversely, Hugh is the team's womanizer. He flirts with Joan and one of her friends, and he quips about going to bed with a woman. He tells a story that ribaldry implies that someone was giving him oral sex.
In flashback, we see classmates stuff a young Turing underneath floorboards, hammer down the wood on top of him and then stomp and dance over the screaming boy. Only when Turing clamps down on his fear do the boys lose interest. (Christopher rescues him.) Someone punches Turing in the face. Joan slaps him. Hugh throws things at Turing's machine, and Turing tries to protect his creation with his body.
British citizens take shelter in a tube station during a German air raid. When they come topside again, much of the area is smoking rubble. We see other brief images of war, both in real war footage and via CGI.
Turing scoops powdered cyanide off the floor in the wake of a robbery, warning the bobbies looking on to not breathe. (It's a bit of historical foreshadowing: Turing committed suicide following his hormonal therapy, and while the movie doesn't say so, he died by cyanide poisoning.)
Crude or Profane Language
"Bloody" is thrown around 15 or 20 times. We hear a handful each of "a--," "d--n" and "h---." "B-llocks" and "b--tard" are used once or twice. God's name is misused a dozen or so times, and Jesus' is abused two or three.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Turing and others light up cigarettes frequently; it's a rare scene that doesn't feature smoke curling up. He and his teammates hang out at an on-base club, drinking wine or beer.
Other Negative Elements
Turing insults people regularly, seriously alienating many of them.
Turing believes that machines like his can "think," just doing it differently than people. And when you "talk" with one or the other, even if you can't see them, you can deduce by the responses whether you're talking to a human or a computer. He calls this questioning an "Imitation Game." And he suggests that he—with his hyperlogical, socially maladroit mind and his sexual deviancies from the norm—shares some similarities with the "different" computers. When he's arrested for his homosexual contacts, he invites a questioning inspector to play the Imitation Game with him and reveals for the first time, apparently, his role in the war.
"Am I a war hero?" Turing asks. "Or am I a criminal?"
The Imitation Game asks us the same question. And in doing so can be quite challenging. It's easy for us to embrace certain convictions when there is no face involved, no person we must look in the eye. It's easy to hold to the truth that homosexuality is a sin when we don't know such a sinner.
The Imitation Game asks us to get to know one—a sinner, a homosexual, a war hero. Propelled by a remarkable performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, we keenly feel Turing's "abnormality" as he goes through life, how different he feels, how alienated. We hurt for him. And we are, on some level, appalled by the treatment he receives.
We know what the Bible says about homosexuality. It speaks not in code, but clearly. And we must therefore grapple with the tension between its truth and the grace it also extends through Christ.
We are all made in the image of God. We are His treasured creations, to be treated with respect and honor and, above all, love.
Alan Turing was not so treated.
Is he a war hero? Emphatically yes, and we should rightly celebrate his work and achievements. The societal peace most of us live in the midst of, right along with the machine I write this review on and the machine you're reading it on, are all descendants of Mr. Turing's brilliance.
Was he a criminal? We do not need to nor should we honor or embrace everything about Turing. His choices. He actions. But the movie reminds us that we should not hesitate to embrace Turing himself—to not just value him as a exceptional mind or courageous war hero, but to greet him (in this postmortem theatrical context, as a way of teaching ourselves to greet all of our fellow men) as a fallen creature just like us, a creation of our God Most High.
Our faith is about looking up, not looking down.
The Imitation Game is a well-made, well-acted, thought-provoking film. Certainly its subject matter makes it a difficult one, and its snide dismissals of God don't help. But there's value here, especially in the urgent reminders that we don't have to choose solely between hero and criminal.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing; Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke; Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander; Rory Kinnear as Detective Robert Nock; Allen Leech as John Cairncross; Matthew Beard as Peter Hilton; Charles Dance as Commander Denniston; Mark Strong as Stewart Menzies
Morten Tyldum ( Passengers)
The Weinstein Company
November 28, 2014
March 31, 2015