The film brought its fictional tension in the form of Turing’s alleged espionage links – which helped to intensify the drama and probably to bring him out as a man of integrity apart from having a scientific mind beyond excellence.
This is what Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) had to say in connection with himself and his role in the World War II in Morten Tyldum’s 2014 historical thriller The Imitation Game. The film is loosely based on Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges which is a biography on the British scientist. For the records, Alan Turing and his team deciphered the cryptic code generated by the German machine Enigma during the WWII – something which helped reduce the war by almost a couple of years, saving lives and influencing a German decline. However Turing passed away in 1954 only, apparently a suicide (though not confirmed) after he was heavily prosecuted by the British Government on charges of homosexuality (which was illegal at that time).
The film dwells on three temporal levels. Whereas it starts off with an interrogation of Turing in 1951, it moves back and delves mostly during the War years 1939 – 1940 when Turing was working in the Bletchley Park in England trying to break the Enigma jinx and further back to 1928 when as a school boy the first streaks of his homosexual flares seem obvious. Also during these school days only, Turing’s interest for cryptography, puzzles and code breaks started off in close companionship with his friend Christopher for whom he had a special affection.
The crux of the film is in Alan Turing’s journey to break Enigma – not by his own but in dreaming of creating a machine which will decode Enigma’s codes – a machine against a machine but with inputs of a human mind. That is why he emphasizes that the machine needs to be reprogrammable, it should remember patterns that it can relate and compute with other subsequent ones – machine that goes beyond calculation. In a sense Turing at that time was probably talking about the latent image of an Artificially Intelligent expert system which he envisioned and spoke about much later than the war times.
The internet is swamped with historical inaccuracies ranging from the fact that the machine Turing designed was never named ‘Christopher’ (in memory of his dead friend of school) as the film had shown. Or for that matter when Turing sent a letter for funding to Mr. Winston Churchill he was not the Prime Minister at all as depicted in reel. There have been allegations that the machine was not completely designed by him, that there were significant contributions from others as well.
Having accepted most of these as well, it will probably not be unjust to comment that even then the film succeeds in bringing forth the enigmatic story of Alan Turing which was largely unknown. The contribution of him and his team in making Enigma break has everlasting implications – but just because this had remained a war secret, Turing’s influence in shaping the 20th century is largely unnoticed. His brilliance in formulating the Universal Machine remains confined in the more academic discourses unfortunately though that is what precedes the concept of the computer. It was Turing who designed a machine with a Control Unit having a ‘Read/Write’ head that moves on a Tape – the basic principle on which most of today’s digital mediums work including the CPU of a modern computer.
The film brought its fictional tension in the form of Turing’s alleged espionage links – which helped to intensify the drama and probably to bring him out as a man of integrity apart from having a scientific mind beyond excellence. Like many of the similar bio-pics which the commercial medium throws up, this exercise of showing an insanely aggressive yet ‘brilliant’ character (a scientist or an artist in most cases) who comes out to be ‘noble’ in the end has hagiographic proportions. Like in The Theory of Everything (on Stephen Hawking) or A Beautiful Mind (on John Nash), The Imitation Game also spends most time in glorifying the subjects instead of intriguing them and thereby making them humane and probably more lovable and with empathy.
One obvious safe route that the director has taken is in dealing with Turing’s alleged homo-sexuality. What are his contradictions? In 1940s how does he deal with this ‘different’ urge? Most importantly we can never understand that Turing has an inclination for the same sex apart from once when his colleague says it in a dialogue to him at his engagement party or he says the same to his fiancée later on. If his ‘alleged’ sexual preference brought about so much pain and anguish in him (he was chemically castrated) and his indomitable scientific quest made him to choose this route in lieu of two years in prison – why didn’t the crises come up during his most working years? More importantly, no one can miss the romantic environment created in the softness of the script when we first see Joan Clarke – an instant indication that Turing will fall for her. The irony of a man working for a secret cause and hiding a grave secret of his own would have made the film and the character far more invigorating. As much as the irony of a man who saved millions without them even knowing about him who couldn’t save his own. These are gaps in a narrative which wishes to play on multiple planes – the issues of homosexuality, the thriller in Enigma breaking, the chill in an Espionage drama and finally a detached yet fiercely focused brilliant mind.
The film travels back and forth between the three time frames and in the last one (1951) during the interrogation which started off with a burglary at his residence is when the police framed him for his ‘indecent act’ of having a sexual relation with a man much junior to him. What is interesting is the poise which Turing showed here and it is here when he first explained the concept of ‘The Imitation Game’ – a game which is nowadays known as the Turing Test. It was no doubt extremely cryptic for the interrogation officer who had no clue about Turing’s involvement in building a machine to break Enigma’s transmitted codes.
As Alan Turing explains to the officer about the possibility of a machine’s ability to think like a human – “Of course machines can’t think as people do. A machine is different from a person. Hence, they think differently. The interesting question is, just because something, thinks differently from you, does that mean it’s not thinking? Well, we allow for humans to have such divergences from one another. You like strawberries, I hate ice-skating, you cry at sad films, I am allergic to pollen. What is the point of different tastes, different preferences, if not, to say that our brains work differently, that we think differently? And if we can say that about one another, then why can’t we say the same thing for brains built of copper and wire, steel?” After 60 years from his death we don’t question if the computer has a mind or not.
Turing was sure of the allowance on the divergence of human behavior. His own life and his struggle with his sexual identity unfortunately didn’t speak volumes of the acceptance of the differences of the human mind, body or soul. Yet in the end he was probably right – “Was I God? No. Because God didn’t win the war. We did.” Morten Tyldum’s film in the end champions this triumph of the human spirit – the free mind which is beautiful and enigmatic.
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(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)
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