Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 19, 2014 9:46 pm 
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Betrayal, suffering, and saving millions in the cleverly calculated Enigma code movie

We're not expected to understand all the details going on in The Imitation Game: wouldn't it be over our heads? This is the work of cryptographers and mathematicians. But the topic is a momentous one, and the screenplay, despite its broad strokes, is laden with complexities. It's World War II, and the Brits are trying to crack the Nazi Enigma code. They're intercepting all the messages; harvesting them is child's play. But they're all gibberish, because the Nazis change the codes every day by (as we'd say) reprogramming a machine that encrypts the texts. If the teams at Bletchley Park can figure out how the German machine works and read the encoded messages, they'll know what the Germans are going to do before they do it, every day.

The focus is on the most famous figure of the code-breaking, the enormously gifted mathematician Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. It's a great role for Cumberbatch. He may not play it much differently from his Sherlock Holmes. But his Turing, however roughly sketched, is a layered and moving figure who seems to oscillate in our eyes between prig, monster, nerd, teddy bear, and cruelly misused hero, along with being burdensomely brilliant, a mathematical genius about to crack the code, win the war and invent the computer.

Turing seems at first a massive intellectual snob: he wants to dismiss all his co-workers at Bletchley Park because he thinks they'll just get in his way. "Popular at school, were you?" asks his supervisor. Then we learn that he is homosexual, at a time when that's illegal. The film opens with a later arrest, and shows an investigation that unearths furtive gay sex acts (though the film prudishly avoids details, thus undercutting its ostensibly pro-gay stance). This "vice" charge by cops is faute de mieux, because they're really hoping to prove him a traitor. Flashbacks show his love of another boy at the Sherbourne School (in school he already showed genius, but was unappreciated). The boys, both math talents, exchange encrypted billets-doux. This affair ends tragically when the other boy, named Christopher, dies of bovine tuberculosis.

Either the film is ambivalent, or Turing is just an unclassifiable, slippery subject, because he does wind up working with other men at Bletchley with the giant computer decoding machine he builds -- he needs help -- and some degree of camaraderie arises. As well as an incredible spy situation. One of the men is feeding info to the Russians, but blackmails Turing to keep this a secret because he is the only one who knows he is homosexual. We who don't know all the story wonder if that could even be true. (It's definitely not.) Moreover there is the one brilliant woman on the team, Joan Clarke (a crisp, excellent, if somewhat underused Keira Knightley), who becomes such warm friends with Turing that, in a gesture that can be convenient for both of them, at one point they become engaged to marry. Clarke knows Turing is homosexual and accepts it. Also on the team, an opponent who becomes an ally, is the one dashing heterosexual man, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode); and several other members of the team who might be gay, or just aren't clearly differentiated in this ambiguous post-public school world of naive middleclass strivers.

These interesting psycho-sexual and social events are dashed off, so to speak, amid the rush and tension of fighting desperately to solve the code when authorities, angry at Turing's £100,000 grant to build his machine, are threatening to shut it down. The greatest paradox is that when they have their simplified "eureka" moment in a pub, and rush back to use information you'd think they'd have fed into the machine all along, and at last, all of a sudden, crack the code system -- they can't tell anybody. This is true even though the brother of the most innocent, boyish team member is going to die within hours if they don't.

At times Graham Moore's screenplay from Andrew Hodges' book is diagrammatically simple: but this is a situation whose moral burden is incalcuable. It must never be known to the Nazis that Turing's team has cracked Enigma, or it would all be changed and they'd be back to square one. They must let a lot of people die, so those who're saved seem so by luck and not through a knowledge of German secrets. This is the most interesting and morally complex part of the story, undramatic though it is.

It's very sad what happens to Turing after the war, his psychological and intellectual decline when forced to take hormone injections in lieu of a prison term, a situation depicted through a visit from a now "normally'' married Joan Clarke. The screenplay is even more than usual telegraphing information here, skipping over a period of years when Turing did important work on early computers and several other significant mathematical and scientific projects: you'd think he'd spent the postwar period getting chemically "castrated" for sex acts and developing an unhealthy relationship with his giant home computer (the latter, perhaps, much like the rest of us now).

It's inevitable to compare this to the other British genius film of the end of the year, James Marsh's account of the early life of Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as his young wife. The Theory of Everything is a brave romance and a tale of physical and intellectual heroism. In The Imitation Game the Norwegian director Morton Tyldom, previously known for his crazily fast-paced fall guy thriller Headhunters, has powerful material to deal with, but he's too squeamish. Taking safe refuge in a vague schoolboy crush, Tyldom's movie never comes to down-to-earth physical terms with Alan Turing's homosexuality. Both films are conventional stuff, "humanizing" intellectuals by simplifying them. Both are nonetheless interesting. The Theory of Everything has something of an edge because it's not only a real and touching love story tinged with deep challenges and commitment, but a remarkable physical acting tour-de-force by Eddie Redmayne that nothing he's done before would have predicted. The reliable and able Cumberbatch is simply doing well a variation on what he has done well before. Nonetheless, some may find Turing's story the more complex of the two. The fact is, despite their abundant awards-attracting charms, both have their limitations.

The Imitation Game, 114 mins., debuted at Telluride (29 August) and Toronto (9 September), playing in dozens and dozens of festivals thereafter. It opened theatrically in the US 29 November (limited), and 25 December (wide) 2014.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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