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A gay genius and war hero, sworn to a life of secrecy
by Megan Smith
Mathematical genius Alan Turing was an “odd duck”—unquestionably brilliant, but incapable of understanding social norms such as humor or sarcasm. Because of this, he was tormented by others as a child and misunderstood by his peers throughout his adult life. But, as he was told by his only childhood friend, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine.” That “odd duck” went on to save an estimated 14 million lives during World War II.
Director Morten Tyldum brings us Turing’s extraordinary tale of puzzling secrets in his latest full-length feature, The Imitation Game. Loosely based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, the film tells the true story of Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and other cryptographers who were hired by the British during the war and stationed at Bletchley Park to crack the “unbreakable” codes of Germany’s Enigma machine.
Turing initially seems like the definition of “does not play well with others.” While his fellow team members collaborate furiously day-in and day-out, using what tools they have in an attempt to break the coded messages, Turing isolates himself, insisting that he alone can solve the puzzle by creating a self-theorized “universal machine.” He comes across as stubborn, arrogant, and self-centered, to say the least.
But flashbacks of Turing’s childhood present a different side of the genius. As a schoolboy, Turing was bullied for being different—by all of his fellow students except Christopher, that is. Christopher befriended Turing and was the first to introduce him to cryptography. As the boys grew closer, Turing’s feelings of friendship evolved into a romantic attraction. But before he can reveal his secret, the school principal informs Turing that Christopher has passed away from a long-term illness (of which Turing had no idea) during a school break. Fighting back tears, Turing insists that he barely knew Christopher—the first instance in the film’s overall theme of having to hide one’s true identity.
Another comes when Turing proposes to the only female Enigma team member, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). Though Turing is well aware of his homosexuality, he proposes to prevent the intelligent and savvy Clarke from quitting the project to return home. (Still single at age 25, her parents feel she should focus on marriage.) Interestingly enough, when Turing reveals his sexual orientation to Clarke, she insists that she still desires to marry him and simply lead a life of companionship together. Turing, however, has different plans, and his refusal causes a rift between the pair.
Though originally doubted by all, Turing’s rudimentary code-breaking computer—which he nicknames “Christopher,” in honor of his lost friend—is successful in cracking the seemingly impossible codes. As a result, the team is faced with the task of essentially playing God by deciding which Allied convoys they will allow to be attacked in order to avoid tipping off the Germans that their battle plans are no longer a secret. The British realize that they must slowly and steadily win this race.
By solving Enigma, the British team is credited with shortening the war by two to four years and saving an estimated 14 to 21 million lives. However, Turing and his team’s involvement in the project wasn’t revealed until years later—yet another secret of identity.
Don’t go in to The Imitation Game expecting a victorious and happy ending, however. In 1952, Turing was arrested and convicted of “gross indecency” (homosexual activity was illegal in England until 1967), but avoided jail time by agreeing to undergo an extensive regimen of chemical castration. Two years later, Turing committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide. That day, the world lost the father of modern computer science. Turing was finally granted a posthumous royal pardon in 2013—more than six decades after his death.
The Imitation Game—which brought home an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay—brings Turing’s significant contributions and overlooked story to a larger audience than ever before. Both Cumberbatch and Knightley give superb performances and keep viewers right alongside them as they solve the Enigma puzzle. However, while the film succeeds in presenting Turing from an outside perspective, it fails to give viewers insight into the genius’ mind, making it hard to connect with his character. Additionally, specifics on how Turing constructed his computing machine, details of its inner workings, and a larger conversation about the ongoing war are largely absent. My hope is that viewers will take The Imitation Game as a jumping-off point to learn more about this incredibly brilliant and complex war hero.