Friday, December 19, 2014

THE IMITATION GAME Is a Poignant Look at the Life of Alan Turing


- THE IMITATION GAME is a true-life story set during World War II, but it's also a film that feels timely, relevant, and that has profound implications for the world we live in today. In many ways, this is old-school, high-gloss Oscar-bait filmmaking. It's a true story - to some extent a biopic, it's filled with a cast of well-liked but awards-friendly British actors, and it nakedly makes a play to tug on your heartstrings. In some ways, it's easy to be cynical about this sort of film - the kind that rolls around every winter like clockwork. But the fact is, THE IMITATION GAME is so well-done - so well-acted, so compelling as a slice of history and as a biography - that it pretty much 100% won me over. This is traditional Hollywood prestige filmmaking, sure. But it's traditional prestige filmmaking done really well, and this is also a fine film that I'd consider a must-see. Sometimes high-gloss and British accents can be a good thing.

The movie features Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing - the scientist who is in many ways the father of modern computer technology. During World War II, the British government enlisted Turing to lead a team tasked with cracking encrypted Nazi codes. Turing's solution - to build a complex machine that could analyze Nazi communications faster than any human - was initially ridiculed. But the machine not only proved successful, but in fact was the forefather of the coming computer revolution.

The film isn't just about Turing's role in the war - it's also about his personal struggles. Turing was gay, and it was a part of himself that he fought to fully come to terms with. Through flashbacks, we see Turing as a shy, lonely, and picked-on schoolboy, starting to realize that his friendship with a male schoolmate is potentially blossoming into something more. During the war, we see the adult Turing - now a quirky, socially-inept genius - trying not to let his sexuality undermine the important work he's doing. Turing fails to fit in with his colleagues, but he finds friendship in the brilliant Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly). When Turing sets up a test to find promising scientific recruits, Joan wows the usually unimpressed Turing. But because she is a woman, Joan is excluded by the government from being a part of Turing's team - at least openly. At Turing's urging, Joan signs up to be a secretary and then, in secret, works as a crucial part of his code-breaking unit. In some ways, Turing and Joan are two sides of the same coin - both are geniuses who have to keep parts of themselves hidden. Turing has to keep up appearances with his team and his bosses - eventually marrying Joan as a way to deflect suspicions about his personal life. Joan, meanwhile, has all the potential in the world to do great things. But during this still-relatively-recent era, she was denied to do so opoenly because she was a woman.

Cumberbatch is pretty much always fantastic, and he again excels here as Alan Turing. Certainly, the role isn't too much of a stretch for the actor - he plays the sort of maladjusted, antisocial genius that is squarely in his wheelhouse (fans of Sherlock will find Turing not that far removed from the Baker St. detective). Cumberbatch is in some ways a showy actor, and this is a showy part - his Turing is full of quirks and stammers and gesticulating gestures. But there is a sadness and a complexity there beneath the quirkiness, and Cumberbatch does a great job of showing us that in fairly brilliant fashion. It's yet more proof as to why the actor has, very quickly and very deservingly, become a fan and critical favorite.

The rest of the cast is excellent - positively filled with the kind of actors who make every movie they're in better for it. Knightly is quite good as Joan - she's a plucky genius who also recognizes Turing's need for friendship and companionship. She provides him with a human connection that puts his work - and his demons - in context. Knightly nails the part. Matthew Goode is also fantastic here. Goode has really been impressing me of late, most especially in last year's Stoker. But man, he kills it here as Hugh Alexander, the guy who was considered Britain's top code-breaker until Turing came onto the scene. There's initially a lot of tension between Alexander and Turing, but seeing their rivalry evolve to grudging respect and, ultimately, to friendship is one of the film's strongest arcs. And how great is Mark Strong? The dude is always a mega-badass, and he is true to form here as Turing's military liason. As if that wasn't enough gravitas, the movie also features Game of Thrones' Charles Dance as Commander Denniston, the military brass supervising Turing's top-secret mission. Dance is pretty much the best at playing the take-no-$#%& hard-ass, so, suffice it to say, he's great here.

For most of its running time, THE IMITATION GAME really sings from a storytelling and pacing perspective. The movie quite simply does a great job at making its at-times bleak narrative still feel rousing and inspirational during key moments. Where the film falters a bit is when it veers from the more straightforward storytelling that it does really well. More specifically, the movie's structure is a little strange - starting a decade or so post-war, then shifting to World War II (with sporadic flashbacks to Turing's childhood), and then ultimately taking us back to the post-war period, where Turing is in not-so-great shape following government-mandated medical treatments meant to "cure" him of his proclivities. The problem is that the time shifts don't feel completely elegant or natural, and by structuring the movie this way, it feels like we're missing what could have been a more poignant depiction of Turing's post-war downward spiral.

Still, I think the film recovers admirably from these slight missteps, and ends with a powerful closing sequence that hammers home the dichotomy of Turing's scientific influence vs. his status as an outcast and criminal, simply because of his sexuality. I've seen criticism of the film that accuses the movie of not addressing this theme fully enough, but I have to strongly disagree. Turing's status as an outsider is a running theme that colors the entirety of the movie. It's there in his social phobias that keep him from being one of the guys with his colleagues. It's there in the flashbacks, where he has to deal with an unspoken truth about his feelings towards his best friend. It's even there in his relationship to his machine. Not only in his drive to create a device free of human error and imperfection, but in his dedication to the machine as an all-consuming obsession.

Ultimately, what's remarkable about this story is how, at it's core, it's a narrative about disparate people coming together to do something remarkable. The code-breakers eventually rally behind Turing, despite their differences, because they all believe in the work they are doing. Cheesy? Maybe just a little. But it's also one hell of a message that we could all do well to remember. The other thing about the film is that Turing was an outsider, and he was an eccentric. But that, posits the movie, is something to be embraced rather than shunned. In fact, eccentricity is one of the chief places in which we can find true genius.

THE IMITATION GAME isn't an experimental game-changer or a boundary-pushing film from a narrative or aesthetic viewpoint. Like I said, it's a pretty classically-made Hollywood prestige film, and director Morten Tyldum excels at giving us lived-in feeling stately government buildings and lager-filled pubs and other British-isms that add to the film's aesthetic. But there is also a lot of depth to the narrative and a lot to chew on - and this is the rare World War II film that's not about combat, but about strategy and tactics and smart people trying to out-think the opposition. That to me is cool, and if that still doesn't sell you, the all-star cast, led by an Oscar-worthy Cumberbatch, should. There will be those who find fault in some of the liberties taken with Turing's story, but I think the film does a commendable job of putting his life out there on film. It's an important chapter in modern history, and an amazing life story from which we can all learn something.

My Grade: A-

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