The Imitation Game Rises to the Biopic Challenge

by / 0 Comments / 149 View / January 9, 2015

If you’ve heard of, but have not yet been able to see The Imitation Game, there’s a very good reason for it. The distributors of the film, the Weinstein Co., are playing a carefully calculated game of their own regarding the release of the award season’s latest buzz-maker. The Imitation Game has been slowly trickling into theaters since its Telluride Film Festival Premiere, instead of being placed into limited, and then wide, release. It’s the same strategy the company employed for the release of Best Picture Oscar Winner The King’s Speech in 2010, one whose goal of maximizing results – both profits and awards exposure – in an allotted amount of time is pretty similar from that desired by the film’s World War II codebreakers.

            The most prominent yet isolated of these codebreakers is British mathematician Alan Turing, painstakingly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, who just so happens to be his distant cousin. Turing is today considered to be the founder of computer science, who at the outset of the Second World War joined a team of Britain’s finest codebreakers to decrypt German messages sent using their infamous Enigma encoding machine. The film’s classification as a historical drama already makes it the sort of film that typically garners nominations – and it has, in fact, already received several Golden Globe nominations. But the fact that the film is openly based on Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: The Engima puts the film in the more alluring, and notably more dangerous, biopic territory. Add to this the fact that Turing, even after saving an estimated 14 million lives with his cryptanalytic work for the British military, was convicted for homosexuality and sentenced to court-mandated hormone therapy. Additionally, a fictionalized version of the same story was depicted in in the 2001 screen adaptation of the Robert Harris novel Enigma. Though it was produced by Lorne Michaels and Mick Jagger, and co-starred Kate Winslet, the film was not a success. The Imitation Game, by the very nature of the story it attempted to tell, faced potential pitfalls aplenty in attempting to uphold historical accuracy in depicting the life of a real person and by portraying civil rights issues inherently associated with the life of Alan Turing.

            The Imitation Game confronts all of these challenges valiantly, though perhaps a little too deftly. It toggles between story aspects with a mechanical precision fitting for the story of a man who built what was, in the most rudimentary sense, the first computer. Like the first computer, however, the film is not without its glitches; there are moments at which the pace of the story moves at too calculated a clip, with certain scenes quite apparently having been unnecessarily parsed or nixed altogether. Even to the viewer who knows nothing of Mr. Turing’s life story, the film gives the impression, through its structure, of being militantly adherent to this account. It seems to be so much of a by-the-numbers biographical film that few viewers would question its accuracy nor its bonafide biopic status. It’s as though the filmmakers, like the characters, reduced the task at hand to a series of formulas, so subtly ingratiating in the familiarity of their format, that the viewer would not even notice them. This is because the film never stops to dwell, in the dramatic fashion all too typical of so many so-called biopics, on any one aspect of the events that occurred. The film is, in fact, quite true to the biography on which it’s based. If the film represents an attempt to algorithmize the biopic genre, then it is a successful one.

            The fact that the films strives for such a straightforward biopic structure is what makes it a somewhat refreshing change from other buzz-garnering films, such as My Week With Marilyn (2011) and the more recent The Theory of Everything (2014). Both films made historical accounts more appealing by packaging them as slightly revisionist romances. By dealing obliquely rather than directly with iconic figures, these types of films are automatically afforded some measure of leeway in the accuracy department – chalked up to “artistic liberty.” The Imitation Game takes no such slant; although it incorporates the storylines of Turing’s relationships with both his first love Christopher, and later, his fiancé and fellow codebreaker Joan Clark (Keira Knightley), the film’s true focus never strays from the life-saving invention that these relationships, respectively, inspired and aided. The one notable shortcut that the film does take, though, is just the kind for which any good math teacher would scold. Although the film follows the creation of the Universal Turing Machine, which allowed for the decoding of intercepted German messages during the war, it gives barely a glimpse of the advanced mathematical work involved therein – which for its time was considered rather revolutionary. Unlike many other highly technical-focused films, Imitation Game rarely sidesteps scientific explanation by providing plentiful analogies to help the audience grasp complex theories. Instead, it skips the STEM speak nearly entirely, venturing to mention only the statistics used to analyze the messages and the “blood-soaked calculus” that befell Turing’s team after they broke the German code – and these rare mentions of math itself are egregiously reductive when you actually consider all that Turing contributed to the field during his lifetime.

            Nevertheless, the film’s math-to-movie ratio will likely still satisfy most audiences, but the lack of math will not be the aspect of the film that makes it feel most incomplete. This aspect is the handling of Turing’s death, which occurred by suicide at age 41. Those who see the film without knowing Turing’s story will feel that the film is missing a coherent ending, as the suicide, along with other aspects of Turing’s life following his code breaking career, are simply stamped on the screen over a scene of the cryptanalytic team gleefully incinerating the classified documents they once demystified. Those who do know the story of Turing’s life – and alleged death – may find the lack of address of this issue more puzzling than the Enigma machine itself. This is because certain elements of Turing’s suicide – including cyanide and apples – make appearances in the beginning and middle of the film, but his death does not come at its end. It’s almost as though the filmmakers were setting up the scene of his death, providing ample foreshadowing, but at the last minute decided to remove it.

There are many reasons why this could have been the case. For one thing, Turing’s mother did not believe he committed suicide.  Therefore the scene itself could have been avoided so as not to taint the legacy of the man’s life with the controversy of his death. Maybe filmmakers felt that the positive air of patriotism generated by the film’s war-time technological triumph would be tonally dampened by its inclusion. By not including it, though, the film makes a fatal misstep in staying true to Turing’s story. To overlook his death is to overlook the significance of his life’s accomplishments: not only did the man contribute to the creation of an entirely new field, he served his country, and in doing so saved an estimated 14 million lives by the age of 41. In losing Turing, the world lost a mind whose further impact was completely unprecedented. “Sometimes it is precisely the people that no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine,” is the thin patina of allegory layered onto the film through its repetition. It seems unimaginable that a film quite truthful to the story of an extraordinary person’s life in all its other aspects, could not venture to depict the tragedy of his untimely passing.