“The Imitation Game” is a solid, but very straightforward biography film, but with a very important message. Young star Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, a British prodigy who helped the Allies decode Germany’s Enigma messaging system during World War II. Yes, it’s yet another war movie, and yet another WWII movie, proving once and for all that it was truly the greatest of wars and an even greater sequel than “The Empire Strikes Back” (is the sarcasm evident enough?).
But it is a different kind of war film, since very little of it takes place in the trenches or on the beach. Rather, most of the “action” happens with a group of guys sitting in a room furiously scribbling away with pencils. Even though Turing is tasked with breaking the code, which is so elaborate it needs to be decoded on a daily basis, his solution for the job at hand and for winning the war, is to build a giant machine that can calculate, or compute, if you will, the Germans’ daily code near instantaneously. Standing in his way is military Commander Denniston, played by Charles Dance most well-known as Tywin Lannister on “Game of Thrones,” who here is no less surly and condescending.
Joining Turing are some fellow geniuses, led by Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode, Ozymandias in “The Watchmen”), who are at first unimpressed by Turing’s ideas and personality, but whom he’d eventually win over with his determination and sense of duty. Eventually, a woman joins the team, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly), who defies expectations and the gender roles of the day, to play a key role in the work.
Though certainly some creative license was taken with the characters and the story, Cumberbatch’s Turing is quite an awkward fellow, who would be condescending if he had enough self-awareness to understand how much of a prick he’s being at nearly all times. Basically, he’s Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory,” only in the 1940s. The one trait setting him apart from other aloof geniuses is that he fancies the men. Turing was gay, and the film also documents the relationship he had when he was younger with a boy named Christopher. This would come into play with his not-so-romantic fling with Joan, who was briefly his fiance. For her, it was a marriage more about convenience than for love, which she makes a good case for being much better than most marriages. Her family frowned upon her working, so the marriage would provide her an excuse to live away from home, as she’s expected to settle down and start a family anyway. Eventually, the truth about Turing’s sexual orientation would come out and would prevent the marriage from happening.
The movie depicts Turing and company’s work as a race against time, of sorts, as head of MI-6, Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) would inform them that British soldiers are dying nearly by the minute. It’s also a race for Turing to complete his computing machine before Denniston pulls the plug, as he doesn’t take kindly to Turing’s wresting away control of his unit (military unit, that is). Both real and manufactured footage of WWII is shown amidst the dramatic scenes to remind the viewer that the men and woman sitting in this room have a tangible effect on what’s going on over there, even as they never saw a battlefield.
Turing was actually a pacifist, both in the film and in real life, and working for the military was likely something he would have considered undesirable. But the film does an adequate job of showing how his nature would come into conflict with his work, showing him putting the supposed greater good of the nation above individuals, especially in one heartbreaking instance. It’s certainly questionable which is really more important, and the film does a good job of simply presenting the situation and its resolution without taking a side in what is right or wrong.
It’s interesting to see how the war impacted the U.K. much more directly than the U.S. Most WWII movies deal with either the front in Germany or Japan, as aside from the attack on Pearl Harbor, people in the U.S. homeland weren’t in much danger, even though it had to be a tense life to be living then. But living in the U.S., with the grandiose treatment of the “Great War” and the Golden generation and how much Americans celebrate war in general, but especially WWII, little is mentioned stateside about the Germans conducting air raids on Britain. Probably one of the reasons Americans love war so much is that if you’re not a soldier, you’re rarely in any danger when it comes to war. But European countries have felt the sting of war. The air raid scenes that show British people fleeing to the bomb shelters and sitting and hoping to make it through to the end are pretty harrowing. It’s just not something you see here very often, and it’s a good reminder that if war does hit home in a tangible way, you’re likely not looking to start a fight quite so quickly.
Toward the end, the film depicts Turing’s treatment by the British government after the war. Homosexual behavior was a crime in the U.K. then, and in Turing’s case, it was punishable by hormonal treatment for “fixing” his orientation, and a year after his sentence began, he committed suicide shortly after his 42nd birthday. In the U.S., people often remark about how soldiers can go die for their country at 18, but it’s illegal for them to have a beer because they’re under 21. How much worse is it that someone who did so much to aid his country would be treated in such a way just because of whom he loved and whom he was attracted to. Many Western countries have amended their laws on LGBTQ people, but even that didn’t happen without a lot of hard work and fighting to get not only laws, but perhaps more importantly, public opinion to come around to their side (as seen in 2014’s Golden Globe-, but not Oscar-nominated “Pride”). It’s still a major struggle in the U.S. today. But it’s important to remember where society once was, because people often forget that it was really that bad, and not all that long ago.
So, “The Imitation Game” has some very important things to say, and the film is very watchable, balancing the drama with humor, as good British film and programming tend to do. But folks who have seen a lot of biopics in the last few years may feel like they’ve seen much of it before. It probably deserves to make a claim for being among the 10 or 12 best films of last year, but being unremarkable as art keeps it from the top. It stacks up well compared to some of the weaker films the Academy nominated for Best Picture last year, and it is something most people should see.
Although this one came from a different angle, enough WWII movies, there were several high profile ones last year alone, in a subgenre that’s been done so much already. How many damn WWII movies are necessary? How much more is there that can be said about the war to end all wars?