Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Imitation of Life

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game (2014, directed by Morten Tyldum) aims to right an historical wrong. It postulates that the mathematician, Alan Turing, was responsible for winning World War II, or at the very least, was responsible for shortening the war by several years and saving 14 million lives and preserving the remaining cities of a shattered Europe in the process. Further, it is outraged at the thanks Turing got for his trouble. This is all couched in a biopic that is formally adventurous only when it serves its thesis, though that may well be often enough. In any event, it has good actors, which is always a plus when faced with those terrible words, "Based on a true story..."

The Alan Turing one finds in The Imitation Game is a bundle of twitches. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing is an autistic savant, oblivious to the niceties of social interaction, blind to the social clues that allistic people take for granted. Turing is a brilliant mathematician whose passion is for codes and cyphers. He offers his services to MI-6 at the outset of World War II not because of some kind of patriotism--he doesn't have any kind of feel for politics, he says--but, rather, because he wants a crack at the Enigma machine. The Enigma was the Nazi's "unbreakable" code box and Turing sees in it a challenge worthy of his talents. Turing is not initially successful, the movie intimates, because he can't play the kinds of social interactions to his advantage among his colleagues. But Turing is also a brilliant game player, and soon out-maneuvers his commanding officer such that he's able to do what he wants. What he wants is to build a machine that will break the code. The machine he conceives is a digital computer that will eliminate the Enigma machine's vast capacity of inscrutability. Turing manages to keep this project alive after he meets Joan Clarke, who answers the crossword puzzle advertisement with which he selects his codebreakers. Clarke likes Turing, but is constrained by the the role of women in the British heirarchy. She teaches him how to socialize and read social clues and get people on his side, an invaluable skill given that Turing's immediate military superior hates him. Turing, for his part, likes Clarke, but as a friend. Turing is a homosexual, haunted by the death of his first great love. When the code is finally broken, Turing and his team suddenly find themselves as the arbiters of life and death. They can't act on all of the communications they intercept lest they alert the Germans to the fact that that the code has been broken. But they can't not act on the intelligence they intercept either, or else what's the point. It becomes a vast game of statistics and deceptions. And after the war, it's all destroyed and kept as one of the deepest of all state secrets, such that when Turing is arrested in 1952 for his homosexuality, the fact that he arguable won the war does not save him from the consequences...

"The Imitation Game" that gives this film its title is the so-called Turing Test. The premise is this: you ask a machine and a person questions without seeing or hearing the person--text only, basically. You only receive their answers with no other clues. If the judge cannot determine which respondent is a machine, then the machine is said to have passed the test. This does not necessarily answer the question of whether a machine can think or not, though Turing thought that it did because we wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Whether the computer can understand what it is processing is another matter entirely. But this is beside the point. There's a reason that "The Imitation Game" gives this film its title, because it is presenting Turing himself as a kind of thinking machine. Hence the presentation of him as autistic (there is no evidence beyond his famous eccentricities that he was). This is an artistic choice rather than a historical one, and it's why you shouldn't trust movies. This is not a movie about facts. Many of the film's "facts" have been streamlined or fudged in the name of storytelling. The film is an imitation of facts and a game at that. It starts with the games in its first scenes. Turing's interview with Commander Denniston, for instance, is a word game. Commander Denniston is the film's primary antagonist besides the Nazis, which is another artistic choice; Turing and Denniston were friends in real life. This is a movie imitating life in the way that movies know how to imitate life. The question becomes, does the movie succeed? Is it indistinguishable from life? That's a good question. I think it plays as a movie, but I consume so many movies that I know better than to learn history from them. But I also know that historicity is a trap and that as fiction, the job of a movie is to tell me the truth--not facts, mind you, but truth--by lying to me about people who never were and things that never happened. "Based on a true story," is the first among lies, even among documentaries where every cut is a lie.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Charles Dance in The Imitation Game

As a story? Well, that's a different matter. I much prefer Shakespeare's Richard III to the actual historical facts of Richard Plantagenet's life. Shakespeare didn't give a hang about telling accurate stories. He told entertaining stories and if the truth got in the way of that? Screw it. The Imitation Game is in that mold. It takes the raw materials of Alan Turing's life and crafts a tragedy out of it. It's fertile ground for tragedy, the story of a man who saves the world and is persecuted in spite of that because of the parochial bigotry of his day. This is bitterly ironic: A man saving a nation that despises him. This is as coolly rational an assessment of the cost of bigotry as I've ever seen. To the film's credit, it doesn't focus solely on Turing as a marginalized "other." Joan Clarke, too, sees herself blocked from the life she wants because of her gender and the proprieties surrounding it. Clarke, in this film's estimation, is equally central to saving the world, and she was very nearly prevented from doing exactly that because it's not proper. This is still relevant. Sexism still exists. This is icing on the cake, but let's be honest here: it is the hatred of gays and lesbians that is center stage. Its rebuke to this hatred is pointed and very much of this moment in time, as GLBT rights reach a tipping point in the public square and the backlash against them rises. Teaching history is not the business of this movie. Shaping the history of its own time is more what it has in mind. As propaganda, it's very effective. Good tragedy is always good for swaying the affections of the masses.

Mark Strong, Keira Knightley, and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

As a film, The Imitation Game is just good enough in that staid, best of the Beeb sort of way. It's respectable even if it fractures time and flits between three different stories from the life of Alan Turing. Its chronology is the most daring formal element of the film, which is faint praise in a world moving on from the likes of Citizen Kane and Pulp Fiction, films that more relentlessly devour their own tails. The film's depiction of work is more rigorous, if less flashy. It gives the audience just enough to grasp what it is that the on-screen characters are doing. The cryptography and the math and the engineering may be an elementary school introduction to the sciences of cryptography and computers, but these elements form part of the texture of the film, such that many scenes are constructed of puzzles. This plays to director Morten Tyldum's strengths: Though The Imitation Game lacks the gleeful misanthropy of Headhunters, it retains that film's breathless forward (and sideways) motion and live-by-your-wits solutions to the problems it throws at its characters.

Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

The biopic lives and dies by its actors, and The Imitation Game is fortunate in its interpreters. Benedict Cumberbatch's version of Alan Turing may not match the historical Alan Turing, but it doesn't really matter. As a persona, Turing is a tabula rasa anyway: he didn't have a public persona the way Stephen Hawking or Margaret Thatcher or Winston Churchill did, so it's not a part that requires the actor to mimic this mannerism or that vocal inflection. Cumberbatch's Turing is almost entirely the invention of the actor and his collaborators. The question isn't whether his performance reads as Turing so much as it reads as a real person who might be Turing in an alternate version of reality. It's the imitation game again. The film's other characters are similarly constructed and if the people who knew them don't recognize them? Turing's niece has said that the film is kind to Joan Clarke, who was altogether plainer than Kiera Knightley. These are movie characters. Avatars, not recreations. Mark Strong's Stewart Menzies is an archetype of the British spy master (in real life, Menzies was the inspiration for James Bond's "M"). Charles Dance's Denniston is an archetype of the military man with no time for intellectual bullshit. Matthew Goode's Hugh Alexander is a foil for Cumberbatch, representing what Turing is not: sociable, handsome, heterosexual and confident in it, commanding. He doesn't need to be a character to serve the movie and for the most part, he's not one, but Goode performs his characteristics to a "T".

The great Chinese director, Tsui Hark, once said that audiences don't go to the movies to think, they go to the movies to feel. That's something that The Imitation Game has internalized. This is a movie that could be dry as dust, but it's not. Its fudging of facts serves a story that swells in power as the film progresses, and at the end, it punches the audience in the gut.

This film has received criticism from some LGBT activists who take it to task for turning Alan Turing from a robust, forceful personality--which is how his contemporaries described him--into a weak stereotype of a gay man, one who's a security risk at that. I don't know that I agree with this, but I can't speak to it with any authority.

On the other hand, I have some experience with hormone therapies. As punishment for his "crime," Turing is subjected to a regime of estrogen to kill his libido and his homosexual urges. As depicted in the film, it has a psychological and physical effect, as if he's coming off a particularly bad set of anti-depression meds or something. I can assure you, nothing like this happens in real life. Turing's side effects, apart from a suppressed libido and loss of muscle mass, were confined to gynecomastia (growth of breasts), which apparently fascinated him and inspired his work in mathematical biology (something the film ignores). Mind you, it's still cruel and unusual punishment, but it's nowhere near as debilitating as what the film depicts.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I highly doubt that the true story of the breaking of Enigma will be told here as it is obvious the agenda is first and foremost a political one.

If I wish to see agitprop I will, but I do not take kindly to agitprop based on true facts.