The Imitation Game (2014) :a film review by Mark R. Leeper.

December 31, 2014 | By | 2 Replies More

Benedict Cumberbatch, one of the busiest actors in filmmaking, turns in a bravura performance as computer theoretician and code-breaker Alan J. Turing who broke the Nazi Germany military Enigma Code and later was persecuted by the British government for being gay. The film’s release could not have been more timely and topical. Rating: high +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10

Early in the film ‘A Beautiful Mind’, a claim is made that mathematics won World War II. Sadly, that film did not explain the claim and many viewers probably just assumed the claim was a wild boast. In fact, highly math-charged programs like the Manhattan Project, Linear Optimization, Statistical Methods, and Cryptography all played an important role in winning the war. The lack of any of these would have seriously hampered or crippled the war effort. A major piece of the mathematics of the war effort was contributed by the British (and incidentally the Polish, who went almost unmentioned in ‘The Imitation Game’) to the breaking of the Enigma encryption system. This was the system for the encoding and decoding German military communications. A relatively simple device could be reset in seconds and the code changed for encryption/decryption. Once the device was reset it would change to one of 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 other codes.

The Imitation Game (2014) (a film review by Mark R. Leeper).

The Imitation Game (2014) (a film review by Mark R. Leeper).

The man who was most credited with breaking the Enigma code was Alan J. Turing, here played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing was one of history’s great geniuses and also one of the most tragic. After the war, the British government turned on Turing much as the American government turned on Robert J. Oppenheimer. ‘The Imitation Game’ is a film biography of Alan J. Turing going back and forth among three streams of narrative. One stream follows Turing’s boarding school days persecuted by his peers for being strange. One stream is about Turing during the war while he led the team working on breaking the Enigma code and later with the technical issues and the project politics and interpersonal relationships while he worked on breaking the code. Later in the same stream of narrative, the issue became when, where and how often could the knowledge of the code be used without tipping off the enemy that the British could read the Nazi’s military communications. In the third narrative stream, Turing was persecuted by the post-war British government for being gay.

Keira Knightley co-stars as Joan Clarke, who really existed, but probably was less pivotal in Turing’s life than shown in the film. During her first meeting with Turing, she improbably proves she can out-think him to a degree he believes impossible. The two become good friends and she is one of the inner circle of the team. (During her association with Turing her wardrobe mysteriously goes from frumpy to stylish.)

‘The Imitation Game’ was written by Graham Moore, based on the biography of Turing by Andrew Hodges. Morten Tyldurn directs. The music score was composed by Alexandre Desplat who is credited with six musical scores in 2014 including The Monuments Men’, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, ‘Godzilla’, ‘The Imitation Game’ and ‘Unbroken’. That is quite a line-up.

Cumberbatch says that the script of ‘The Imitation Game’ appealed to him right away, but he was told he was not right for the part. Warner Brothers wanted to make the film, but only if they could get Leonardo DiCaprio to play Turing. Cumberbatch had been more anxious to play the role of Turing than the producers were to make the film. The character has certain similarities to geniuses that Cumberbatch had performed in the past. For example, he gets on the code-breaking team using Sherlock-like reasoning to deduce that the team had to exist and that it had very high priority. He can manipulate other people to get his way.

The release of this film during the Sony data scandal could not have been planned, of course, and could not have been better planned. The film is all about the losing of privacy of secrets and losing of control of supposedly secure private information. The real Turing may have been the first hacker to use a computer to spy. If even Enigma, with its 159 quintillion ciphers, is not unbreakable security to keep information private – and thank goodness it was not in this case – what is sufficient security? The film itself relates information that was kept an official government secret in Britain decades after the war was over. Turing had a great mind but his career and his life were destroyed by his loss of privacy in his personal life.

‘The Imitation Game’ is a thriller that really does thrill and as the same time draws viewers into a mathematical problem. The film is the best picture I have seen this year and one of the most important. I rate ‘The Imitation Game’ a high +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.

Mark R. Leeper

(c) Mark R. Leeper 2014

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Category: Films, MEDIA

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  1. avatar Paul Hanley says:

    I have not yet seen this film but I take issue with the reviewer who says the British government turned against Turing after the war. My understanding is he was arrested in a public toilet for a homosexual act. This would still be a criminal matter now but then, in the 1950s,being a practicing homosexual in public or private was a criminal offence. You may argue it should not but have been but that was the law then and seems to have been especially vigorously enforced in this period prior to repeal of the laws against homosexual acts in private. It was not however some action specifically directed at Alan Turing by the Government. Otherwise the review does seem very positive and I will certainly go and see the film.

  2. avatar MarkRLeeper says:

    Your account seems more or less consistent with my understanding of what happened. Are you suggesting that he was not persecuted or that the British government was really on his side while it was going on?

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