“The Imitation Game” - Morten Tyldum (2014)

The Imitation Game (2014) is a historical drama about the efforts of famous mathematician Alan Turing to crack secret encrypted German communication during World War II.  The film was an enormous commercial success, and it was nominated for eight US Oscars and nine British BAFTA awards.  Indeed the film is a compelling work thanks to its fascinating and interconnected themes.  The viewer is challenged to make sense of what is going on in four rather complicated areas:
  • The intricacies of deciphering secret messages that have been encrypted by the state-of-the-art German Enigma engine.
  • The complex social landscape of the British intelligence environment, which was overlaid with constant distrust and misrepresentation.
  • Alan Turing’s own complicated persona and his quest to make his way in a mistrustful world.
  • The very question of what it means to be intelligent.
All these are  interwoven by director Morten Tyldum, using Graham Moore’s Oscar-winning screenplay that is based on Andrew Hodges’s biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma (1992). 

Nevertheless, there are some problems with this account of Turing’s experiences.  For one thing, the film has come under serious criticism for its historical and characterological inaccuracies [1].  I won’t go into them here, but it seems that a number of these inaccuracies are not just poetic license and in fact pertain to key aspects of the story.  Another problem concerns the jumpy and unmotivated time shifts in the narrative.  Because there are three main timelines in the story, the viewer is continually faced with adjusting to a shifted context as the narrative switches timelines.  For some people this may make things interesting, but for me these sudden shifts are often only a distraction.

Of course, many people may already know some things about Alan Turing (1912-1954), but the basic facts bear repeating.  He was one of the greatest mathematicians in all history.  In particular, he is the father of theoretical computer science and stands in relation to that discipline the way Aristotle does to  philosophy and Newton does to physics.  He had already made his remarkable foundational contributions to computational science when he was in his twenties, before he joined the British war effort in 1939.  During the war, he made crucial (but little known) contributions to the allied effort to decode secret messages of the German military.  After the war, he returned to his theoretical work, but he was arrested in 1952 for being a homosexual (at that time, a crime in England) and forced to undergo “chemical castration” to cure his deviant desires.  He committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41.

The story of this film is primarily concerned with Turing’s wartime activities and makes little reference to his mathematical contributions in the 1930s.  In telling this tale, though, the film relates Turing’s activities in three time periods:
  • Schoolboy (1928-1930).  This is when Turing was a teenager attending the Sherborne school.  His best friend was classmate Christopher Morcom, and it is understood that they formed a deep, emotional attachment.  Morcom died from bovine tuberculosis in 1930, but Turing retained affectionate memories of Morcom for the rest of his life.
  • WWII (1939-1945).  This is the main timeline and covers Turing’s work for MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, during the war.
  • Arrest (1951-1952).   This is a period when the British police were investigating Turing’s possible criminal activities.  He was suspected of being a Soviet spy, but was ultimately convicted of being a homosexual.
The film begins in 1951 [2] with Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) being interrogated police detective Nock (Rory Kinnear).  Turing begins to give an account of his life, and there is a suggestion that much of what is later shown is a re-enactment of what Turing tells Nock.

Then the scene shifts to 1939 when Turing began to work at Bletchley Park for the British Royal Navy’s code-breaking efforts under the command of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance).  This was particularly important in connection with efforts to intercept German U-boat attacks on Allied shipping in the Atlantic Ocean, which was a key part of the Battle of the Atlantic [3]. The task of Denniston’s command was to break the secret codes of the German Enigma machines, which were famous electromechanical computational machines of that time [4].  Most of the early scenes in the film in this connection are apparently intended to show Turing’s supposedly Asperger-Syndrome nature, and they appear very exaggerated and artificial to me.  I have doubts about the accuracy of this characterization, because at times in the film Turing appears to be hopelessly isolated and anti-social, while at other times he is more sensitive to his social surroundings.  People with Asperger Syndrome or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are said to have difficulty empathizing and imagining what others around them think and feel.  However, there are times in this story when Turing clearly does imagine what others are thinking.  A person with Turing’s genius would likely have been eccentric, but I wonder if this wooden typecasting of Turing shown here is authentic.

Cdr. Denniston comes across as impossibly arrogant and pompous, but Turing gets a more sympathetic hearing from the wily Major General Menzies (Mark Strong) of MI6, and eventually Turing is put in charge of a small team of talented cryptologists.  The already existing Enigma decryption efforts were being carried out by human cryptologists, but Turing’s new idea is to build a machine that will perform the deciphering automatically and more quickly.  Everyone around him, including his own team, doubts his plan will succeed, so Turing works off by himself on crafting his new electromechanical machine. 

Turing does need some more staff and so he places a newspaper ad and recruits a new team member – Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a woman.  This adds some feminine spice to what has so far been an all-male story, but some critics have felt this part is overplayed.  It is true, though, that even though Turing was gay, he did propose marriage to Joan in order to keep the talented woman on his team.

Turing and his squabbling team do make some progress, but his machine is still too slow to keep up with the daily changes to the Enigma ciphers.  Denniston threatens to shut down Turing’s whole operation.  But then Turing comes up with an interesting and mission-saving insight.

While at a cocktail lounge with Joan, he meets her friend, Helen, who is a British signal receiver of encoded German messages.  Helen tells him that she is attracted to her German counterpart, but that he must already have a girlfriend.  This is because each of her German counterpart’s messages starts with the same five letters, which must therefore signify someone’s name.  Turing is struck with an idea when he hears Helen say this.  He realizes that his machine, instead of attempting to decode an entire German message, need only begin by decoding some words that it “knows” will already be in the message.  He knows that every day at 6:00 AM they get a coded message that contains a German weather report and also has the words “Heil Hitler”.  So, for sure, that message is already known to have the words “weather” and “Heil Hitler” in it.  With these clues, Turing’s decoding machine is able to quickly decipher those phrases and then, with that information, all the day’s messages.

At this point Turing and his team know they have cracked Enigma, but now they encounter a moral dilemma. They quickly decipher information about an imminent German attack on a British naval transport operation, and their immediate impulse is to warn their naval brethren.  But Turing realizes that if they do so, the Germans will figure out that Enigma has been “cracked” and will immediately change their cipher codes.  So Turing decides that the only way to preserve their hidden advantage is to counteract some German operations, but still stay within the realms of statistical plausibility.  This means that they must sometimes abstain from warning some of their own forces in order to keep their game in play. 

This is one of the examples where Turing is able to imagine what his adversary is thinking – not typical of an Asperger type.  Nevertheless, as he tells his comrades,
“you can’t do what feels good, you must do what is logical”.
So this last comment is another telling expression of Turing’s isolated personality.  Turing and Joan then go to Menzies to convince him to use the machine decryption in a measured way that will stay within the bounds of statistical likelihood so that the Germans won’t become suspicious and reconfigure their Enigma machine.

As a consequence, Turing’s Enigma work continues successfully, and some estimates are that it shortened the war by two years and so saved about 14 million lives.  The details of their contributions, however, were not well known to the public, since at the end of the war, Menzies ordered them to destroy all traces of their secret work. 

There are other subplots in the process of covering this period. Turing, and later, Joan are accused of being Soviet spies.  And the relationship between Turing and Joan cools, and they break off.  In addition, this WWII narrative thread is occasionally sprinkled with short scenes from the Schoolboy and Arrest interrogation narrative threads. 

In the end the film returns to 1952, and the police decide to drop charges that Turing was a Soviet spy but still press charges of “indecency” against him for being a homosexual.  He confesses to the crime and is convicted.  In the end he just wants to be alone with his computing machine, which he has named “Christopher” (although this is not thought to be historically accurate [1]).

Of the four major themes of the film mentioned earlier, those concerning the decryption efforts and the atmosphere of the British espionage community are well covered and dramatically satisfying – even if they may have been oversimplified [1].  However, the fascinating nature of Turing’s  personal journey is more opaque.  The Schoolboy narrative thread suggests that Turing was very sensitive as a teenager and permanently affected by his relationship with Christopher Morcom.  But the adult Turing seems much more closed off and only an outline of a person with Asperger Syndrome.  Although director Tyldum’s extensive us of closeup reaction shots is emotionally very effective and useful for conveying an expressive social atmosphere, I never got a good feeling about what Turing may have been thinking (just as, ironically, Turing may have sometimes not known what others around him were thinking).

This brings us to the interesting question concerning the nature of intelligence, itself.  At one point in the film, when Turing was being interrogated by Detective Nook, Turing mentions the idea of the Turing Test [5] for artificial intelligence.  This   is an idea he came up with in 1950 concerning how to identify intelligence, and it also known as “the imitation game”, whence the title of this film.  In this “game”, an inquisitor is invited to communicate via text messages with two invisible “people”, one of whom is a machine (computer) and the other is a real person.  If the inquisitor cannot tell which of those two is the real human person, then the computer can be considered to be intelligent. 

Although the Turing test was only intended to serve as a convenient operational definition, it has always been controversial.  First of all, it suggests that intelligence can be manifested purely via text messages, thereby omitting major aspects of thinking and experience.  It also suggests that empathy is not intrinsic to intelligence – a person, or a machine, could calculate what is the appropriate social response without having any intuitive human feelings.  This was an idea alluded to Alberto Moravia’s novel, The Conformist (1951 – adapted as a film in 1970 by Bernardo Bertolucci).  Is that the way Turing, himself, operated?

Turing tells Nook that machines are just different “thinkers” and should be acknowledged as such.  Are the filmmakers suggesting that Turing was more like a machine?  What does it mean to be human?  Where are the boundaries?  These are questions that are hinted at but not fully explored in The Imitation Game.

  1. “Accuracy”, “The Imitation Game", Wikipedia, (17 January 2017).   
  2. This should actually be 1952, according to the records.
  3. “Battle of the Atlantic”, “Wikipedia”, (15 January 2017).  
  4. This was before the employment of vacuum-tube-based computers, the first wartime instance of which was the Colossus computer that began to be used in 1943.
  5. “Turing test”, Wikipedia, (16 January 2017).   

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