This is the saddest film I’ve watched in a long time. Maybe ever. And, right up front, SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS. Yeah, that’s kinda strange to say, given that the movie chronicles real-life events that happened 70 years ago and more, but, if you want to be “surprised” by events you didn’t know about, stop reading now.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, arguably the inventor of the first electronic computer, and leader of the effort to break the Nazis’ top secret “Enigma” code during World War Two. Turing was a misfit from the word go. He was the smartest kid in his class, suffered, suggests the film, from OCD, and was gay at a time when homosexuality was an offense punishable by jail time or forced “chemical castration.”
Cumberbatch does the role proud. It occurred to me, while watching him play the outcast who doesn’t seem to know how to respond emotionally to people and situations the way others do (maybe because he’s been forced, throughout his life, to hide his feelings?), that he would have been better cast as Spock in his Star Trek outing than as Khan. Not that Zachary Quinto is not an admirable Spock, but Cumberbatch brought such depth to an emotionally stilted character that I’d really like to see him take a crack at playing Jim Kirk’s Vulcan best friend.
Turing is portrayed, there’s no denying it, as an asshole. He offends people with his directness, and his lack of concern for their agendas. That doesn’t sit well with military types of fellow scientists. But I found a large measure of sympathy for the character, probably because he and I share a tendency to make people uncomfortable with our approach to a problem, and our habit of focusing on the solution and putting aside the small talk and the niceties. Maybe a lot of people think I’m an asshole, too. I’ve no doubt at least some do.
But my sympathy for Turing, as portrayed in this film, runs deeper than the similarities I see between us. (A film character, however based in fact, is still a fictional character. Cumberbatch’s Turing is not, and never could be, the real Alan Turing. From here on out, when I say “Turing,” I mean the character in this film, unless I specify otherwise.) Turing was a man mourning his lost love. Apparently, his period of mourning lasted from his teen years to the end of his too-short life.
At 16, Turing fell in love with classmate Christopher Morcom. Christopher was the only person (aside perhaps from his mother) who showed Turing acceptance, encouragement and affection. All the rest of their classmates either bullied him or were indifferent to him. Turing tells his headmaster at one point, that he doesn’t have any friends. And, yes, there were times in my life when I could have said that, too.
Being a teen is hard enough. It’s a time when you’re very unsure of who you should be, how you should feel. When you’re coming to terms with your body, your identity, your sexuality, and you’re being given conflicting moral messages by parents, peers and society at large. A lot of teens come away from that experience feeling worthless, hopeless and alienated. In the midst of that, finding someone to love, and who loves you, can seem like a miracle. Young Turing’s miracle was cut short when Christopher died of Bovine Tuberculosis. The film takes a lot of creative license here. It portrays Turing as having had no knowledge of his friend’s condition. That wasn’t really the case. It also wasn’t the case that he was called to a private meeting with the headmaster, who rather coldly told him his loved one was dead. In fact, from what I’ve read, a school assembly was called to inform all the students of Christopher’s death.
But I defend the creative license taken. A young person, learning that his only friend, his first love, has died, does not feel as though he were in a room full of people. He feels like he’s all alone in the world. That’s surely how Turing must have felt, especially as he couldn’t tell anyone, “The love of my life has died.” He would have been shunned. Interesting, isn’t it, that even someone used to being shunned and bullied was afraid of the shunning an open homosexual might receive in the late 1920s?
The scene with the headmaster is especially painful. That’s where Turing says he has no friends. He feels he can’t admit to any relationship whatsoever with Christopher, other than that of a classmate with a similar interest in mathematics. He can’t reach out to parents, teachers or counselors (there weren’t any) to say that he’s in pain. He has to pretend there is no pain, and that he never cared. It’s wrenching.
Parallel in the narrative to Turing’s teen years are the years 1939 – 1945, when he was working at the Bletchley Park facility, attempting to crack the “uncrackable” Nazi code, Enigma. It’s here that we see Turing as the far less sympathetic adult he became, hardened by grief and rejection. Despite his social shortcomings, he manages to build and lead a team of analysts who successfully crack the code and save uncounted lives.
I’m ambivalent about the scene in which the team decides to allow a civilian convoy to be destroyed, so that no one knows they’ve broken Enigma. It was slathered over with “look at us, doing the right thing, making the tough choice, letting people die so that more people can live.” I’m ambivalent for two reasons. One, I don’t care how moral your reasoning, choosing who lived and who died is what the Nazis did. I’ve known for years that lives were allegedly sacrificed to protect the secret of Enigma’s being cracked. I’ve never been comfortable with it as a decision. “Well they were at war!” Yeah. That was the first sin. It doesn’t forgive the later ones. (Not that I think it was a sin for the UK to defend itself against the Nazis. But war is started by complex sets of circumstances, and I don’t believe any side can ever be truly blameless. One is just less wrong than the other… sometimes. In this case, the Nazis were completely wrong. But war is and should be viewed as a sin. It’s something we should try never to do.)
The second reason for my ambivalence is the attribution of the decision to let those people die to a group of geeks in a radio shack. I don’t buy it. There’s been back and forth for years over what Churchill’s involvement was in episodes like the blitz of Coventry, and whether he personally ordered the deaths of civilians by inaction. But, Churchill or no Churchill, these people had military supervisors. The idea that they simply didn’t tell their bosses what was going on defies belief. If it’s what really happened, I feel like the screenwriter needed to flesh out exactly how that decision played out, for the sake of believability. Otherwise, I’m left to mutter to myself, “There’s no way that decision wasn’t deferred to a commanding officer.”
I was not ambivalent about Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Joan Clarke, the woman Turing almost married. I was amazed by the character she created, and by the woman who inspired the character. After a bitterly funny scene in which a sympathetic friend tells him that women tend to get defensive when they find they’ve accidentally married a homosexual, Turing reveals his sexuality to Clarke. Her eyes show a moment of surprise, but she sincerely pleads for him to go forward with the marriage. Her argument is that they are friends, true intellectual equals who enjoy each other’s company. She feels there is a spark between them, just not a romantic one. I felt great admiration for this character’s strength and clarity of thought. More, I agreed with her. She and Turing should have married. A marriage based on sincere friendship has more staying power than one based solely on romantic love. I’ve been blessed to have a marriage based on both, and I’m here to tell you that romantic love is stretched to (and often past) its limits by the trials of a life together. Friendship has a much better chance of enduring. (And yes, both have endured for us. But I don’t think the love could have survived without the friendship.)
Turing and his team were never allowed to discuss the work they did. Part of the plot of the film is that a police detective is trying to find out what Turing’s war record was, as part of an investigation of a burglary at Turing’s home. Turns out he has no war record, it was that classified. So, while he was able to contribute several papers to the field of artificial intelligence, Turing wasn’t really allowed to stand up and accept recognition for his greatest triumph.
Adding to this sadness is the eventual end-result of that police investigation, which occurred in the 1950s. The detective learned that Turing’s home was burglarized by a young male prostitute whom Turing had been paying for sex. Homosexuality being a crime at the time, Turing was charged with and convicted of “indecency,” which, him being a college professor, was a serious blow. To avoid jail time and continue his work, Turing accepted chemical castration. He was shot up with hormones that made him impotent. They also had other serious side-effects. Within a year, Turing had committed suicide.
As at least one reviewer has pointed out, The Imitation Game is over-sentimentalized. The name of the primitive computer which Turing built to crack Enigma was not “Christopher.” The real Turing wasn’t that obvious about his affections for his dead love. But apparently he did stay in touch with Christopher’s parents, and friends said he never considered himself to be in love again.
Some slight over-dramatization of Joan Clarke’s realization that she was engaged to a gay man was also present. From what I’ve read, Clarke knew before Turing proposed that he was gay, and was not fazed by the fact.
Further, whether or not Turing’s death was a suicide has been debated. He died of cyanide poisoning, but, as Turing himself points out early in the film, it is possible to accidentally inhale a fatal dose of pure cyanide if you happen to be working with it.
Overly sentimental or not, this is an emotionally powerful film. It comments well on the pain that’s caused by people having to hide their sexuality. It shows what can be the cost of prudery. Chemical castration is still legal and still practiced, in the U.S. and other countries, despite the objections of civil liberties activists. True, in the U.S., it’s not ordered under law to “cure” homosexuals any more; but it’s a dubious practice, morally, in any case. And, outside the law, there are still groups trying to “cure” gay people of their sexuality. We’ve still got a long way to go.
Less universal, perhaps, but still important to me, is how the film illustrates that people of ability can be (and are) used by others. Cynically, I said to my son (who also works in the field) as we left the theater, “See? IT people have been shit on since the very first of us was hired.” Perhaps an inflammatory statement, and made half in jest. But only half. Scientists and technicians of all disciplines, as well as artists–I guess all geniuses–are often valued first for their abilities, less, and sometimes not at all, for their humanity. This was certainly true in Turing’s case. I came away from this film feeling no one (except his boyfriend and his fiancé) gave a damn who the poor bastard was, only what he was, and only when he was needed.
Parting thoughts: If you are a person who is keeping secrets, please find someone to share them with you. If something is hurting you, don’t suffer in silence. If you are a parent or have younger family members, be sure your children or young relatives know they can talk to you. One of the themes of this film was that it’s lucky to be weird, but it also hurts. Don’t let it hurt you, or anyone else, so much that it kills.