Monday, February 16, 2015

The Imitation Game: Finding the Man in the Machine

To learn how a machine works, you treat it as a puzzle: take it apart and see how the pieces fit together.  For The Imitation Game, screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum fracture the life of Alan Turing so that we can see connections between its pieces.  With understanding comes affection, humor, and pathos.  

One piece is the "code."  By now we've all heard how mathematician Alan Turing led a team of puzzle-solvers under cover at England's "Bletchley Radio Factory" to design a rudimentary computer that broke the Nazis' machine-generated "Enigma" code.  But in Moore's screenplay, schoolboy Turing, obsessive, inexpressive, bullied, asks Christopher, his one friend, about a book on cryptography: "How is code-breaking different from normal speech?  People never seem to be saying what they mean."  By his mosaic treatment of Turing's life, Moore has flanked this piece from the 1920s with other conversations from 1941 and 1952, so that we have ample demonstration of this genius's difficulty picking up sarcasm and social cues coded in normal speech.

Another piece is the eponymous "Imitation Game" proposed by Turing in a theoretical paper, much in the news lately as "the Turing Test."  A machine that successfully fools an interrogator into thinking its answers are human has crossed the threshold of "thinking."  The story is framed as the interrogation of Turing by a detective investigating an apparent break-in at Turing's home in 1952.  Bits of that interrogation are woven in and out of scenes that show us Turing's obsessive behavior at school and among teammates at Bletchley.  Through fine writing and actors with conviction, we also see schoolboy Turing struggle to express love that he feels for Christopher at school, and adult Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) learn how to be human from Joan (Keara Knightley), sole woman on the team.  Much of the humor in the film arises from Turing's mechanical imitations of jokes, flirtation, and kindness.

The other piece has to do with secrecy.  Even in youth, Turing knew to hide his love for Christopher;  in 1952, exposed by a male prostitute, Turing was convicted and sentenced to chemical castration under the United Kingdom's "immorality laws." The entire Bletchley operation was secret during the war, expunged from the record for another fifty years afterward.  Turing also learns that one of his teammates is spying for Stalin.  But the core of the movie is the irony that, once Turing's team could decode every Nazi plan of attack, their knowledge still had to remain secret, even from officers who could prevent massacres, lest the Nazis get wise.  Moore dramatizes Turing's dilemma when a convoy ship is sacrificed to secrecy.  Director Tyldun makes sure we see the human cost in lives and loss.  Later, we see a close-up of Turing's pencil marking his statistical analysis of how many Allies to sacrifice on a given day to keep Nazis in the dark.

Every piece of Moore's screenplay falls in place at one simple line.  Turing asks his interrogator, "So, now that you've heard my answers, do you think I'm human?"

Thanks to fine writing and fine performances, we all have our answer.

1 comment:

W. Scott Smoot said...

Thanks to Cincinnati cousin Lisa Dayton for a link between Turing's story and my family's hometown: "Film Snubs Ohioans Role Breaking Enigma