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There’s an interesting irony to the title of the new movie about Alan Turing and the breaking of the German enigma code in WW II.  The Imitation Game, as it is titled, refers to a thought experiment devised by Turing to settle the question of machine intelligence: might a machine one day think, and how would we know?  His first idea was to have three rooms connected by non-visual means in which a man and a woman would each try to convince a judge that he/she was a man by the way questions were answered – the woman imitating a man.  Turing then proposed that if a judge could not, in a contest between man and machine, identify the machine better than 50% of the time, the machine, by imitating a man,  would have to be considered intelligent. Movies Imitation GameThe irony is that the title reference to the game (which is not very well described in the movie,) invites us to judge:  is the Alan Turing of the movie/machine real, or an imitation?  Is the code-breaking enterprise portrayed real, or an imitation? As entertaining as the film is, it remains to me a simulacrum, not passing the test it sets itself.

The foundational problem is that the film makers prefer their formula of a lone, persecuted genius who prevails against bureaucratic fools, saving mankind, to be betrayed in the end.  It’s the quintessence of Hollywood movies.  If the Turing machine of his game tried to convince us of its reality by claims to superhuman powers we would be suspicious. So here, too.  The reality of Turing and breaking the Enigma code was that it was a vast enterprise, of some 9,000 people by war’s end, not a garage start-up with half a dozen crossword puzzle savants.

There is a barely perceptible nod as the movie gets underway to the importance of the Polish resistance smuggling a German encryption machine to British intelligence.  Completely unmentioned is that Polish cryptographers and mathematicians had broken the code in the early 1930s and conveyed that to the Brits as well.  Turing and his group  still had enormous work to do and made unimaginable breakthroughs as the Germans added complexity to their encoding machines, but they hit the ground running, not sprawled in awkward ignorance.

The best thing about The Imitation Game is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance –not that who we see is necessarily what Turning was like, but that the screen persona is believable, intense, monomaniacal and with a few interesting complexities.  Apparently the real Turing, contrary to the film portrait, was in fact quite lively and well knew what a joke was.  Eccentric, yes; autistic, likely not.  He was not only aware of his homosexuality but pursued liaisons all during the time of the enigma project, something we wouldn’t know at all from the movie.  Even one or two shots of furtive encounters, or emotional hope, or loss, around the time he tries to bond with Joan Clark would have added depth to the imitation man.

Keira Knightly always lights up the screen and she does so here, perhaps too much.  It is fascinating that Joan Clark was an actual person, a math prodigy who in fact worked with Turing in a time when women were at best set to listening to, and transcribing Morse code. She was, apparently, not quite the heart-throb portrayed, setting up an obstacle of a different kind.

The sub-plot of an introduced Russian spy in the project seems to really muddy the water.  There was such a spy among the thousands working on the project.  According to Turing’s biographers they never worked together, much less arrived at a modus vivendi about knowing and holding each other’s secrets.  It muddies the history by raising a question that is raised more forcefully as the code is broken and the team realizes that secrets broken do not mean they can be fully operated on.  Too many attacks thwarted will reveal to the Germans the code has been broken.

The realization of this is a dramatic moment in the movie but what flows from it makes little sense.  Turing is shown as the one who grasps the issue and then enforces it, refusing to warn the British navy of an impending attack on a convoy in which the brother of one of his coworkers is a sailor.  Turing and Clark then go to the head of M6, a new war time agency, rather than their actual boss, a navy Admiral.  Together the three decide that extreme care must be taken in the use of German secrets.  Which revealed secrets are to used and which not used is to be worked out using mathematics and statistics, not decided by military boneheads.  My take-away bafflement was this: so geeks and spies were in charge of war time strategy, deciding on their own what to pass on to Eisenhower, Montgomery and Churchill?

It is true that keeping the knowledge of German secrets secret was top priority but in reality a complex system was put in place, involving subterfuge and information siloes and all branches of the armed forces and intelligence services; it was not the job of the code breakers themselves.  Similarly, if as the movie suggested, the Russian spy was intended to leak some, but not all, secrets to Stalin to help his armies defeat the Germans on the Eastern front, how were such leaks to be decided?  Are we meant to assume that somebody was massaging the data the spy — right at the center of the code-breakers– was to pass on?

One of the toughest jobs screen writers and directors have is to come up with filmic shorthand to create the perception of complexity and plausibility.  In this case gaps were left instead of tight, compressed detail.  One of the most puzzling is the oblique reference to apples and cyanide, both of which played an enormous part in Turing’s life.  We wouldn’t know there was a connection at all from the film.  Another is why the Admiral in charge of the race to decrypt is portrayed as such an ignoramus.  In fact, he was a noted cryptographer in his own right.

The Imitation Game is a well acted, interesting popularization of a war-time story, with enough holes in it so that the boat won’t float.  Besides offering an entertaining evening a good, possible outcome would be to create interest in seeing other movies about Turing, his fellow code-breakers and the dramatic events.  Even better, would be reading some of the many books available here, here, here and here.

One bio-pic documentary available is Codebreaker, (2011.)  Though it uses the lens of acted out sessions between Turing and a psychiatrist, giving more weight to his arrest and turmoil in the final several years of his life than to the code breaking, there are interesting documentary shots of the machines being used, which it turns out The Imitation Game duplicates very well.  Brief interviews with Turing’s colleagues from the Project, now elderly, are interesting, as are those with daughters of the psychiatrist who knew Turing as children. It’s a nice complement, and expansion of the longer movie.

For a 1979 Polish film about the vital part Poles played in breaking the German code try The Enigma Secret by Roman Wionczek.  For a more fictionalized account where, for example, the Russian spy becomes a German spy and a girlfriend goes missing, try Michael Apted’s 2001 Engima,  [The 1983 Enigma with Martin Sheen has nothing to do with the topic at hand.]

For quick summaries of the Enigma and Ultra projects see BBC, here, Encyclopedia Britannica here (especially about the Polish contribution,) and History.Net here

More on Turing himself, including a recent apology by the British Government for its treatment of him see http://www.turing.org.uk/.  His Wikipedia page is quite well filled out as well.

For a detailed review at the “New York Review of Books,” unhappy with the match between screen and reality see Christian Caryl, Dec 19, 2014