Key Flaws in The Imitation Game

While overall an interesting film, the Alan Turing bio-pic falls short due to its historical snobbery.

By Robert Moeller Published on January 25, 2015

If you were interested in producing a film that is almost guaranteed to garner Oscar buzz, The Weinstein Company could hardly have done better than its latest effort — The Imitation Game. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, the British actor movie critics love to love more than anyone else these days, and utilizing the marketing allure of a World War II drama, The Imitation Game has many of the same cinematic ingredients that garnered four little gold statues for The King’s Speech back in 2011.

But unlike the warmth and inspiring tone of King’s Speech, The Imitation Game is a sad, depressing tale of a mistreated genius. It is a fairly formulaic recounting of a largely unknown chapter in Great Britain’s fight against Nazi Germany. The wonderful acting performances and intriguing plot suffer under the weight of the filmmaker’s unshakable desire to bludgeon the audience with the forced — and historically misleading — message of gay martyrdom.

Cumberbatch portrays Alan Turing, a British mathematician, cryptologist and pioneering computer scientist who helped the Allied Forces win the Second World War by cracking the German’s “un-crackable” Enigma code. On his journey from misfit prodigy to war hero to an early grave there is espionage, sabotage, unrequited love and chemical castration.

Turing, a man who had sacrificed much for his country, was prosecuted after the war when it was learned he was a homosexual and paying younger men for sex. The heart of The Imitation Game resides in Turing’s struggles with never feeling comfortable in his own skin.

The film’s trailers and marketing campaign would have you believe it was first and foremost a “dramatic war-time thriller.” But the film not only allows the war element to be eclipsed by the “tortured gay” storyline; it also gets Turing’s attitude toward his military service wrong.

Imitation-Game-Poster

First, there was the flippant way Cumberbatch (and the director) portrayed Turing’s relationship to (and feelings about) his military service. By all accounts, Turing was proud of the impact he and his team had on the outcome of the war. Many details of their top-secret code-breaking project were not released for 50 years, but it’s now clear that the real-life Turing was thrilled to be working to stop the Nazis.

In the movie version, Turing is shown to be, at best, indifferent toward the literal and existential conflict between tyranny and liberty then gripping the entire globe. Benedict played Turing as someone more interested in showing everyone how smart he was and defying his close-minded superiors than helping to save Western civilization.

This connects to a more basic flaw in the film — the moral equivalency game the filmmakers played with the discrimination Turing faced as a gay man in the middle part of the 20th century.

To be sure, many people have been mistreated for being gay, and this aspect of Turing’s biography is real and thus fair game for inclusion in a film about his life. But he chose the temporary hormonal treatment, incorrectly thought to “treat” homosexuality at the time, over a jail sentence. In contrast, the Nazis murdered gay people by the gross, along with Jews, Christians, the mentally handicapped and Gypsies. The Nazis wanted their totalitarian regime to rule the world. England had what we  recognize today as an unjust policy to “deal with” perpetrators of sexual deviancy, and England was right to issue Turing an official pardon posthumously last year, but they were not the same as the Nazis.

It’s easy to label everything that came before us as bigoted and hateful and stupid. And some things in our past — even here in the civilized West — were just that. Where our governments wrong their citizens, we should spotlight those injustices.

At the same time, this can quickly become what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” We must also remember that many of those we’re so quick to denounce fought and died for our freedoms. They risked everything for future generations. That doesn’t make them infallible, but it certainly warrants a bit more respect than equating them to the wicked ideology they defeated.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can show both the mistakes of previous generations alongside the undeniable wisdom they have passed down to us.

I wish The Imitation Game had cared enough to show both.

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