The Imitation Game Brings History to Life

Have you heard of Alan Turing? Mathematical genius, historical figure, war hero? Unless you have taken a course on World War II or your high school history teacher was much better than mine, the name means little to nothing. For this reason alone, the newly released film, The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum, is a heart-thumping, eye-watering and beautiful history lesson.

But let me start by addressing highly disputed critiques of the film’s accuracy. As The Imitation Game begins with the well-known words, “Based on a True Story,” it has raised questions and controversy over what is ‘true’ and what is just ‘based on’ the facts. Personally, I left the theater so enthralled by the rises, falls, successes and horrible letdowns of Alan Turing’s spectacular life, I could not believe that more than the World War II facts could be real. However, upon further research, I was pleased to find that almost all of the characters and events were based on real and significant people.  

Historians have argued that not every character worked and interacted with each other in the ways that the film portrayed. Alan Turing, played by the fantastic Benedict Cumberbatch, was not actually as amusingly arrogant and self-satisfied as he was portrayed to be. And no, there is no record that he actually separated his peas and carrots at lunch, as one critic scathingly notes. But the shocking revelation of this unknown hero and his substantially true and unknown story, for me, overwhelmed all of the complaints.

The Imitation Game jumps between past, present and future to create a fully-formed view of Alan Turing’s life. Beginning post World War II in 1951, we are thrown headfirst into Turing’s messy apartment along with a suspicious detective. Through his eyes we make our way through trash and clutter, buzzing machines and tangled wires, until finally reaching Alan Turing himself. 

Having been cast in a similar role in BBC’s hit show, Sherlock, Cumberbatch slips easily into the character of a brilliant yet socially awkward hero. Through his distinctly apathetic facial expressions and blunt delivery of lines, Alan Turing is brusque and formal upon first appearance. He appears awkward in that misunderstood genius sort of way that Cumberbatch hits so perfectly on the nose. But Cumberbatch takes Turing’s character a step deeper than that. Maybe it’s his unwavering truthfulness or unstoppable drive, but something about Turing is instantly likable. And as a viewer, I instantly wanted to know more. 

Quickly we are then thrown back into Turing’s highly secretive and classified past. It is 1939, Britain has declared war on Germany and Alan Turing is traveling to the government-operated decoding center, Bletchley Park. Here, with his harsh demeanor and difficulty with social interactions, Turing soon grants viewers some quick and well-scripted humor but has difficulty making friends.

Balancing on the edge of success and having their program shut down (an inaccurate portrayal of their work used to build tension, argue historians), Turing and his team of men work to decode German messages on the mystical and deadly transmitting machine: the Enigma. The Enigma was used by the Germans in World War II to secretly communicate messages between camps. As the Enigma’s code key changes every night at 12 a.m., the men have 24 hours to correctly decipher the key and decrypt messages. But with the unfathomable number of key possibilities, each frustrating day comes to a close with another civilian ship sunk or a city bombed. 

Turing, however, has a new idea for deciphering the Enigma. He imagines a machine that can not only produce answers but learn from them, a machine with a brain unlike our own but equally as thoughtful and responsive. Using his brilliant, complicated mind, Turing creates another one: the Turing machine, an early version of the world’s first computer. 

With this strong plot line alone, The Imitation Game would have held my attention; however, its intermittent flashbacks into Turing’s troubled past add a dimension of emotion and understanding. Following Turing through his years at an all-boys’ boarding school not only explains some of Turing’s awkward nature but allows a greater sympathy for his situation. At parts, the film’s extreme time shifts did feel a bit too jumpy and confusing, but I found each moment in Turing’s life crucial to give a better understanding of his character. 

When we finally returned to the film’s opening present (1951), I felt as though I knew and loved the strange and misunderstood Alan Turing. His story speaks of sacrifice and courage, portrayed perfectly through Benedict Cumberbatch’s full embodiment of the character and Graham Moore’s artfully crafted screenplay. 

Let me end by begging you, please, to go see The Imitation Game. If you are a history nut, you can count the number of incorrect facts. And if you have never heard the name Alan Turing, you will watch with shining eyes as his brilliant mind changes the history of World War II. It’s really worth it either way. 

But as always: don’t believe me, just watch!

Sawyer Henshaw SC ’17 is an English Major from Hawaii. Believe it or not, the film columnist wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies until she was 17 years old.

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