The Imitation Game

February 13, 2015

Alan Turing largely founded my academic field, and I've been fascinated by him and his life ever since I first read about him when I was in university. He lived an interesting if deeply tragic life, and his contributions to early computer science marks him as one of its absolute intellectual giants, along with his Ph.D supervisor Alonzo Church. In 2015, I still teach some of his results, essentially unchanged, in one of my classes. He also worked as a codebreaker during World War II, and his efforts were instrumental in shortening the war and paving the way to the eventual Allied victory.

All that, unfortunately, is only tangentially related to The Imitation Game, a quite compelling film about a lonely, autistic genius who heroically defies his small-minded leaders and colleagues to practically single-handedly break the Nazi cypher, and in the process shows the world that sometimes, it is the people that nobody expects to accomplish anything who end up accomplishing things nobody could expect (a sympathetic self-empowerment mantra repeated by several characters in the film). Unfortunately, it purports to be a film about Alan Turing. This presents a tiny problem: When it claims to be "based on" true events, it seems to be in much the same way that Asterix was "based on" the Roman occupation of ancient Gaul.

Opening & Framing

The film opens with a routine police investigation, somewhen in 1951In actual history, the burglary (and police case) took place in 1952.. Alan Turing's home has been burgled, and the police detectives find an uncooperative, antisocial eccentric (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) tinkering with cyanide in his makeshift home lab. One detective launches an investigation into Turing's background, on suspicion that he might be a Soviet spy. The secret Turing was actually hiding was his homosexuality (still a criminal offence in 1950s Britain) and the burglary was committed by a friend of one of his lovers, and he is brought in for questioning. This provides the framing of the rest of the story: Turing recounts the story of his days in the Enigma codebreaking effort at wartime Bletchley Park to the police detective.

This absurd framing device would have made him guilty of a crime that even the homophobic society of 1950s Britain would have considered a bit worse than being gay: High treason. The film even takes care to explain this to us: At two separate points in the film, MI-6 leader Stewart Menzies explains, in no uncertain terms, that revealing the events at Bletchley Park to anyone constitutes an act of high treason. The film opens by re-inventing Turing as a man who would casually commit high treason to save his own skin.

The actual Turing was completely unashamed about his sexuality, and during the interrogation about the burglary, he openly told the police himself. He didn't particularly worry, since he was convinced that Parliament was just about to legalize it. Unfortunately, his prediction was off by 16 years, and he was sentenced to chemical castration (as an alternative to jail time): This, the film does get right. However, the exact circumstances of his death in 1954 remain mysterious: He had been off his hormonal treatment for a year when he died, a year in which he had enthusiastically involved himself in scientific projects and (according to his mother and his friends) had showed no signs of depression. He didn't leave a suicide note, and theories about his death range from suicide or accident to assassination.

Plot Summary

Flashback to 1941, where a slightly younger Turing is applying to join the codebreaker effort at Bletchley Park. He is interviewed by the gruff, mathematically ignorant Commander Denniston (played by Charles Dance, a grandmaster of portraying thoroughly unpleasant individuals), and throughout the interview, he readily demonstrates his complete lack of understanding for, or patience with, basic social protocol. He comes across as a self-aggrandizing, condescending ass. Denniston, in turn, reveals himself to be a bureaucratic simpleton with no understanding of mathematics, logic or cryptology, and who fails to comprehend how Turing's radical and unheard-of idea of using a machine to defeat the Enigma machine could even work. Denniston is quickly established as the film's villain, the foil to Turing.

I have to tip my hat to the originality of needing a villain like him in a film that already established that its villain is Hitler.

Turing is nonetheless hired, and joins a small team of mathematicians, crosswords enthusiasts and chess masters tasked with cracking Enigma. Due to his poor social skills (he barely understands being invited to lunch, and doesn't understand humour), he is completely alienated from the team. His colleagues largely despise him, and view his idea of building a computational device to crack Enigma as a very expensive fool's errand. Yet, he perseveres, and manages to convince Winston Churchill himself to promote him to team leader. He promptly fires the more hopeless members of the team, and comes up with a brilliant way to hire new members: A national crosswords competition, in which the winners then have to solve a logic puzzle version of the Star Trek Kobayashi Maru scenario: An impossible scenario concocted to see how the applicants will deal with certain failure. Enter Joan Clarke, a young, pretty, female applicant (played by Keira Knightley), who solves the problem, in record time, after having initially been ridiculed by the misogynist goons of the intelligence service. Turing has her hired, to the disgust of his sexist leaders.

She and Turing form a very warm friendship, and she takes it upon herself to teach Turing the ways of human interaction. He brings apples to his team and tells them jokes (poorly), trying to warm them up to him so as to improve team morale. However, the team's attempt to build a codebreaking machine (which Turing names "Christopher", after his deceased childhood love) meets with consistent and frustrating failure. This situation comes to a dramatic head when Denniston and his goons show up to destroy Turing's machine and fire Turing, and we have a touching "Oh Captain, my Captain" moment when the entire team declares that if Denniston wants to fire Turing, he'll have to fire all of them too.

Eventually, Turing and Clarke get engaged (largely to deal with Clarke's terrible petit-bourgeois parents wanting her to marry soon). Turing, who in most of the preceding social scenes of the film has come across as an entirely asexual Mr. Spock character, is tormented by the fact that he is not sexually attracted to her at all, and seems to have homosexual inclinations.

After a long and frustrating string of failures, Turing finally hits upon the brilliant idea of looking for known strings in the encrypted messages (after listening to a story by a female Bletchley Park radio interception worker). Those silly Nazis are undone by their penchant for writing "Heil Hitler" in all their communication, right down to routine weather reports.

But now, Turing and his team faces a worse conundrum: If they tell military command that they have broken the code, then military command will make short work of the German U-boat attacks on the British trade fleet and Royal Navy, and then the Germans will know that their cypher has been compromised. Then they'll invent a new one, and the team will have to start all over. Thus, they have to decide which secrets to keep, and which to pass on. They get embroiled in an MI-6 conspiracy to selectively inform government and military command about which German attacks to foil and which to deliberately allow to succeed (costing lives of British personnel). Eventually, the Nazis are defeated, and Turing's team burns their notes and are sworn to secrecy.

At this point, we flash-forward to Turing's interrogation and subsequent, grotesque punishment. He commits suicide off-camera, and the end credits informs us about the significance of his work — including how his "Turing Machines", having been studied by scientists for decades, are now called "computers".

A Picking of Historical Nits

All of that makes for a great, classic story: Socially disabled misfit genius, misunderstood by everybody, defies rigid-minded leadership and wins the war, almost single-handedly but for the aid from another oppressed and underestimated genius. Sympathetic messages against homophobia and misogyny. A mythic loner hero. Classic Hollywood story.

Unfortunately, it is a Hollywood story.

The actual Turing was nothing like the character shown in the story. Of all the many famous historical people who have been posthumously armchair-diagnosed with autism, he is one of the less convincing. Although he enjoyed working alone, he had many friends at Bletchley Park, most of whom described him as a charming man with a penchant for mischief and an excellent if unconventional, wry sense of humour. He was popular with children, and people liked to be around him. The film character was a rude, condescending asshole with less understanding of human relations than many actual autistic people. He is essentially a 1940s Mr. Spock.

Furthermore, the historical Turing was the leader of his group at Bletchley Park from its beginning, and the one time he petitioned Churchill over his commander's head, it was to be allocated more manpower, not to be empowered to fire his colleagues. The Enigma effort was a highly collaborative one, and Turing's radical idea of building a machine to defeat Enigma was not only immediately accepted by the entire team, it was based on an already-existing design by Polish cryptanalysts. The machines were called bombes, a mutation of their Polish name ("cryptological bombs"). Bletchley Park, in fact, had several codebreaking machine efforts developed in parallel (the most famous being COLOSSUS, the world's first programmable digital computer, in which Turing wasn't directly involved).

During the film's turning-point Eureka! moment, Turing figures out that if they just look for known strings (like "Heil Hitler"), they can defeat the code. The machines were designed to do just this from the outset, and it was a well-established tool of the cryptanalytic trade. In other words, the Eureka! moment was essentially equivalent to if a film about medieval warfare featured a pitched battle scene in which a knight runs up to his liege and exclaims "Sire! What if we used all these sharp iron implements we are carrying… to hit people with?" and everyone treating it as if he had just come across a revolutionary new idea that saves the day.

Film-Turing (owing to his apparent half-Vulcan lineage) comes across as being mostly asexual, although we do see a romantic schoolboy crush with the Christopher who he eventually names a computing device after. He seems terribly confused about his sexuality. This is in stark contrast to the actual Turing, who enjoyed cruising the New York gay bar scene during his time in the US (where he completed his Ph.D), and whose favourite vacation spots were disreputable islands in the Greek archipelago. Nearly everybody who worked with him knew he was gay, and during his brief engagement to Joan Clarke, he told her about his homosexuality the day after his proposal. She was unfazed by the revelation — and in all likelihood, she already knew.

In other words, the film turned an empowered, vivacious, almost recklessly (given the historical era) openly gay man into a closeted, weak, mostly-asexual caricature. The historical Turing maintained a long line of lovers throughout his adult life. In contrast, our half-Vulcan hero's warmest personal relationship is with a woman — who, at one point, has to explain the basics of courtship to him.

The historical Joan Clarke wasn't hired due to demonstrating a superhuman knack for crossword puzzles — she was a respected and competent mathematician, who was hired on recommendation by her former supervisor and professor, himself a Bletchley Park team member. She was a victim of sexism in that she was paid substantially less than her male colleagues for no other reason than her gender. It sort of bugs me that Keira Knightley was cast in the role, not because I have anything against Keira Knightley, but because the historical Clarke was a heavyset, plain-looking woman, and I'd have enjoyed seeing a significant film heroine who wasn't petite, glamorous and conventionally pretty. Clarke's still-living niece agrees. On the other hand, Benedict Cumberbatch doesn't look much like Alan Turing either.

I mentioned that Film-Turing commits treason in the framing of the film, but that is actually the second time he does so. In one low point of the film, he discovers a Soviet spy on the team, and in the ensuing confrontation, the spy blackmails him into silence with a threat of revealing his homosexuality, and he grudgingly keeps his mouth shut (until discovered by MI-6). Not only would historical Turing most likely have been completely unfazed by that threat (as per his behaviour during the police interrogation), but the spy (John Cairncross) and Turing worked on different teams and never actually met.

The worst character treatment, however, is probably given to Alastair Denniston. The historical Denniston was an experienced cryptanalyst who, at the time of the war, had about 20 years of cryptological work behind him. He co-founded the British cryptanalytic intelligence service, was married to a fellow cryptanalyst, and had taken part in the early joint Polish-French-British work on Enigma. He knew about the bombe designs, and hired Turing specifically to build one. In the film, he is a bigoted ogre who wants to destroy Turing's machines and have him fired, probably because he has justifiable suspicion that Film-Turing is a half-extraterrestrial masquerading as an autistic man.

Finally, the ending crawl mentioning that "Today, we know [Turing Machines] as computers" was toe-curlingly ignorant of what a Turing Machine is. It's a mathematical abstraction of a universal computation device, which makes for an excellent model to study the nature of computation and complexity. It is not, in fact, a forerunner of actual computing devices, and building one is strictly intractable in a finite universe, given that it by definition has infinite memory. The principles underlying actual electronic computers were devised by another eccentric genius who worked as a cryptanalyst during WWII.


Viewed as a story about prejudice, ableism, sexism and homophobia, and about how marginalized figures in society may accomplish great deeds, The Imitation Game is a fine film. It tells that story well.

Viewed as an Alan Turing biopic, it's complete rubbish.

Had it been a film about explicitly fictional characters, it would have been excellent, if slightly on the ham-fisted side. Since it claims to be about historical people, it self-destructs by twisting its heroes (and self-invented villains) into caricatures that seem to be optimized for Oscar-fodder.

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