The Brilliance Of The Imitation Game

29 01 2015

I was able to get to The Imitation Game back in December, and I have been meaning to write about the movie for some time. In short, it was brilliant. While it takes some historical liberties (like most historical movies), it is still very true to the general premise. In this piece, I discuss elements of the movie which may expose key plot elements, and thus spoiling any surprises. Proceed at your own risk.

A Movie About Computer Science

So, how often to you see a movie about computer science? I’m not talking about the pseudo-computer science that we’ve seen over the years in movies like War Games or The Net. I’m talking about real computer science, the stuff that makes our real computers work in the real world. Further, how often does computer science get to be the hero that helps win a war?

There’s a reason something close to computer science isn’t made into a movie: for most people, it is really boring. It is typically a bunch of people (usually guys) sitting around in small groups discussing very esoteric things, then rushing off to keyboards and screens to type. And type. And type. Writing code may be exciting for those of us that do it, but it is pretty dull to watch.

The Imitation Game manages to bring elements of the roots of computer science to the big screen, and do it in an exciting and compelling way. Okay, you won’t see gigantic battle scenes, or Michael Bay-esque explosions. But what you will experience is a lot of clever dialog, most of which is right or at least close. And it is about one of the biggest non-combat elements of World War II that occurred: the breaking of the Enigma code, with the development of Ultra. It allowed the Allies to “read the Nazi’s mail”, and be able to better manage the overall war effort.

How Real Was It?

Certainly, some elements of the movie didn’t happen in reality. Alan Turing didn’t propose marriage to Joan Clarke. There is no evidence he actually met John Cairncross, let alone was threatened by John. The machine wasn’t named Christopher (it was actually called Victory). The team didn’t decide to not prevent a convoy attack. But taking these liberties did allow the audience to know that these sorts of things did happen, if not exactly as portrayed in the movie (in reality, Allied command did allow some attacks through in order to hide that they were reading Nazi communications. So yes, people died that might have otherwise lived, but there was a bigger goal to achieve).

But the general process was close to the truth. The concepts were right, and that is good enough, at least for me.

Alan’s Homosexuality

The absolutely indefensible treatment of Alan Turing because of his homosexuality was the one element that the movie made very clear and obvious. I’m baffled by reviewers and critics who claim that the movie minimized it. Perhaps they saw a different movie? One reviewer claimed the only reference to his homosexuality were some “riské notes” to a friend in school.

Seriously? The fact that Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) comes right out, and says it multiple times apparently isn’t enough. That one of the other characters in the movie threatens him with exposure isn’t enough. If there was any question as to whether Turing was homosexual, and that he was treated appallingly because of it, then those viewers were clearly not paying attention.

Tragically, Alan Turing lived in the wrong period of time when it came to his sexual orientation. How much more could he have contributed to mathematics and computing had he lived longer? Sadly, we will never know, and the world is a lesser place because of it.

Worth Multiple Viewings

The Imitation Game is one of those movies that I will happily watch over and over again. Sure, we all knew the outcome. We knew they would break the code. We knew Alan was treated abominably in the 1950’s by the country he helped save. But the acting, the dialog, the story is still compelling. It brings to life people that, except for a few of us, are rather obscure, and their enormous contributions are not truly understood. Sure, in the end, it is a movie about social injustice and computer science. But it is also a great movie.

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