In many ways, The Imitation Game is a familiar story: the brilliant, idiosyncratic genius beset by misunderstanding and petty opposition on all sides who somehow nevertheless manages to triumph and achieve remarkable things.
But the life of British mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) has more significance than many denizens of the 21st century may realize. Every oblivious person stumbling down the street thumbing an iPhone, every poseur lounging in a coffee shop tapping a laptop, everyone who interacts daily with any sort of digital technology, whether a microprocessor in a microwave oven or a supercomputer, owes a direct debt to Turing and his work.
All the more tragic, then, that his life was needlessly cut short, all his potential contributions lost, because of ignorance. The film's title is multi-edged, referring not just to Turing's famous intellectual experiment to discern human from machine intelligence, but to the "imitation game" he himself was forced to play as a gay man in a world where such an identity was not only socially anathema but literally illegal.
There's also the "imitation game" of cryptography, coded language that imitates meaningless gibberish while actually carrying messages of life-and-death importance. Turing's goal in The Imitation Game is to break the Nazi military ciphers encoded by the aptly-named, fiendishly intricate Enigma machine. As the film vividly shows, it wasn't merely an esoteric intellectual exercise for the British Intelligence boffins at Bletchley Park. Every day, every hour that Enigma remained enigmatic, soldiers fell on European battlefields, sailors were lost in Atlantic Ocean convoys, and civilians died in bombing raids on the home front. But how to break a code with trillions of possible permutations — variations that changed every single day when the settings of the Enigma machine were reset?
An imposing contraption
Turing's answer was to move beyond the traditional techniques of chess masters and math prodigies poring over messages and scratching notes on paper. Instead, he created a new type of machine, an imposing contraption of turning rotors and intricate wiring whose apparent function seems as enigmatic as the ciphers it's built to analyze: a rudimentary computer. The machine's expense, along with the apparently wasted time and effort lost in its construction, led Turing's superiors to threaten to pull the plug (literally and figuratively), until a sudden breakthrough changed their minds.
Like pretty much all filmic docudramas, The Imitation Game takes a fair number of liberties with actual history. Among other points, both the Enigma machine/code had been around and in use long before Turing and his colleagues tackled them, and Polish cryptographers had even broken earlier versions of the code before World War II.
But even if Turing wasn't really the hero who single-handedly saved the day and shortened the war all by his lonesome, the film is spot on in its depiction of the desperate British efforts to shatter Enigma before its secrets cost more Allied lives. And it also shows the tragic irony of their success, which brought with it tortuous ethical and moral quandaries. Once you've broken your enemy's code and can read all his secret messages, how do you exploit that power without letting him know you possess it? If breaking Enigma meant that some lives are saved, then cruel expediency dictated that others must be sacrificed in order to preserve the secret.
Genius and courage
The Imitation Game amply demonstrates the intellectual and personal courage that accompanied Turing's singular genius. A man who penetrated secrets, he was also forced to keep them — not only those of Enigma and its bounty of military intelligence, but also the fact of his homosexual identity. That secret overshadowed Turing's entire life, from his dismal youthful experiences at boarding school, to a forlorn and doomed brief engagement to colleague Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), to his final last years, when an overzealous police investigator who suspected Turing of a more sinister secret life as a Soviet spy inadvertently outed him to the authorities, leading to Turing's legal prosecution and eventual suicide.
Director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore have structured The Imitation Game as three intertwining narrative threads, deftly spanning Turing's youth, his wartime work, and his twilight years. Benedict Cumberbatch, already known for playing intellectual gadflies like Sherlock Holmes, turns in a brilliant, passionate performance as Turing (with Alex Lawther impressively assaying the youthful Turing at boarding school).
In the end, even as Alan Turing managed to invent entirely new methods of solving some of the most challenging intellectual puzzles ever devised, he was undone by a universal mystery that still haunts us all, a dark cipher even more intransigent than Enigma, and one that even a mind like Alan Turing's was unable to break: blind, irrational prejudice.
For Paula Berman's thoughts on this and other biopics this Oscar season, click here.