The Broken Enigma: Film Review of The Imitation Game

The transatlantic At the Movies with Susan Corbett and Jason Heap is back. This time they discuss The Imitation Game, the story of Alan Turing and the cracking of the Enigma code during World War II.

Jason Heap: The story of the breaking of the Enigma code during World War II is one that many people already know, however the mathematical genius and creator of the machine that allowed them to break the Nazis’ code isn’t exactly a household name.  The Imitation Game, adapted from a book by Andrew Hodges called The Enigma, focuses on said genius, Dr. Alan Turing who, according to his mother, was an “odd duck.” Although brilliant, throughout his life Turing was considered odd, arrogant, and seemingly unaware of others feelings. He was a logical/mathematical thinker and a loner who expressed little or no empathy and struggled to understand conventional social cues.

Susan Corbett: The plotline of the film is the old cliché: the tormented genius who surmounts the odds (and annoys everyone along the way) and, at the eleventh hour, saves the day. The plot is scientifically and historically important, given that Turing’s contribution to our modern world is placed alongside breakthroughs such as the turbojet engine (Frank Whittle), penicillin (Alexander Fleming), and radar (Robert Watson Watt). It was Turing’s work on what we now call computers that Stephen Hawking noted was the most significant breakthrough from the wartime era.

JH: Something I realized watching The Imitation Game was that Turning, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, had all of the hallmarks of higher functioning autism (HFA) or Asperger’s syndrome.  Individuals with Asperger’s exhibit deficits in areas of communication, emotional recognition and expression, and social interaction. You and I have taught many students who have learned to develop personal strategies and work with their HFA.

SC: That’s right, and these students are often misunderstood. You and I have encountered individuals with autism who are considered “strange” or “weird” by people who don’t understand.  Granted, not all are geniuses but invariably they are gifted in other ways, particularly, as humanistic thinker and educational philosopher Howard Gardner highlights, in music, art, design, architecture, and literature, as well as science and mathematics. It is wrong for people to think of autism as a “disease” that needs to be cured: it’s a condition whereby the brain functions in a different way. This is invariably the reason for their other gifts. Hopefully, as more people see this film and realize that through his genius and alternative way of thinking Turing helped save 14 million lives and shorten the war by two years, society will realize that these individuals need nurturing not ostracizing.

JH: One detail about Turing that wasn’t explored in the film was his obsession with the story of Snow White. After being convicted of “indecent acts” with a male prostitute in 1952, Turing was given a choice: prison or chemical castration, one of the side effects of which is manic depression. He was found dead on June 8, 1954 from cyanide poisoning administered on an apple.

SC: I am sorry to say that the UK’s attitudes towards LGBTQ people were unwelcoming at the time.

JH: Yes, that’s true, but it extends much further than the 1940s, back to the Buggery Act of 1533 which was given royal approval by Henry VIII. This moved the legal aspects of sodomy from the sole regulation of the Christian Church in England into the state’s control, where same-sex relations were made punishable by death. Through a slow succession of Acts of Parliament, it wasn’t until August 1954—two months after Turing’s death—that a legal review into LGBTQ equal rights began to change laws and public attitudes in the UK.

SC: That’s right. Same-sex relations were decriminalized in July 1967, which led to further legislation that finally gave us the Equality Act 2010. I can only imagine what the world would be able to have and benefit from today had Turing not had anti-LGBTQ pressure and attitudes to deal with. A talent like his was wasted because of discrimination.

JH: He is certainly one whose life was not finished, and I hope that we recognize the significance of the royal pardon granted to Turing on December 23, 2013.

SC: The royal pardon is a vital part of Turing’s story, and this was only mentioned briefly at the end of the film. I felt the film was well-acted, humorous, and entertaining, albeit a little too much Hollywood with too much poetic license taken for my taste. However, as such the film has reached a larger audience, some of whom might not have known of Turing otherwise.

JH/SC: With a cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightly, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, and Tom Goodman-Hill, it should be no enigma—we mean, mystery—that we give this film two thumbs-up and nine out of ten stars!

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