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A reflection on Tyldum's 'The Imitation Game'

February 21, 2015

Am I a computer?
The Imitation Game is a war film, but the war is quiet. The tank's grinding gears and rough tread are the computer's whirring calculations and delicate tabulations. Any scenes of combat are black and white stock news footage. There is the war we know from The Longest Day, The History Channel, and Saving Private Ryan. And, for the most part, the war we know is one courage and virtue, of right versus wrong. The Imitation Game therefore is also, as the title suggests, about deception. And, to this point, Alan Turing's (Benedict Cumberbatch) machine named Christopher is housed in a barn, like some strange and futuristic horse.

An interesting moment occurs within the film when Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley) turns her head ever so slightly and sees out a storefront window amputees home to England from the front. The moment is rare for an otherwise bloodless film about World War II, but it aligns the work of Turing and his crew with a real cause. They are the good guys, and they are to prevent young men's bodies and brains from being shot up and spit out by the mechanics of war.

However, later in the film a moment that should make the triumph of Allied good over fascist evil much more achievable is everything but. In the barn that is Christopher's old world facade, Turing's staff of code crackers breaks the Nazis encryption through the circuitry of Christopher's undaunted logic. Ironically, what undoes the Nazi code is the inhuman programming of their particular brand of fascist programming. They can't help saying, "Hail Hitler!" And therefore they can't help but be predictable. In a way, they are no longer humans but machine-like bodies. And then triumph wilts. And there is a price to pay.

If Turing's staff leaps immediately on their findings and uses the cracked code to save a boat from Nazi terror, then the Nazis will know Enigma has been solved and all Turing's work will be undone. Turing decides the boat must sink. This claim is met with protest, but Joan Clarke tells the rest of the party and the audience that Turing is right. She even stands between him and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) as the latter punches him in the face and looks to play the traditional hero. In this scene, the film decides that traditional heroism, in this modern age of World Wars and unimaginable evil, is inadequate. Humans will not win the war. Cold calculation and stiff logic are the stuff of triumphant campaigns. Courage and doing what's right can bring only momentary victories. Lastly, this scene suggests that forgetting one's humanity and imitating a computer is how humanity will survive.

"I always knew there was more to this world than pirates."
Of course, the above discussion only covers one of the film's conflicts, the cracking of Enigma and the winning of the War. The rest of the film relies heavily on two other time periods that involve a young Turing and a post-war Turing. In both of these sequences, but especially the latter, the conflict revolves around Turing's homosexuality. The country and people who most benefited from the circuitry of his own brain and the machine it created put not only his freedom but his very identity on trial. His persecution at the hands of the nation he helped save is a betrayal of the worst kind.

Moreover, it revolves around the hypocrisy that results from dealing in absolutes, from claiming to be the essential good in what becomes the only available position when the opposition is cast as an essential evil. The Britain that resides in The Imitation Game, which is Churchill's roaring lion, is not a hero without sin but a nation capable of the same cruelty as its enemies, if not in magnitude, then at least in action.

In the film's conclusion, Turing is at home with his calculations, but he is plagued by the hormone treatment that is to cure him. The commentary is as subtle as his trembling hands, but should not be lost on the audience: he is undergoing the same eugenic chemistry experiments that signified the Nazis as beyond forgiveness. Tyldum's England is one far removed from the 2010 Best Picture The King's Speech. This is not a proclamation, nor is it a broadcast of the will. Instead, The Imitation Game witnesses the sacrificing of individual will to national ideologies. And the only person who sees Turing's pain is Joan Clarke, just as she saw the amputees unloading their broken bodies from the war's boxcars.

And here is where Morten Tyldum's film makes its stand, behind the scenes and within the synapses of the institution and the nation. This film is less about history than how we think about history and therefore we--and the things we make--are its subjects.

Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.

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