Movie Review: The Imitation Game

Graham Moore’s The Imitation Game tells the story of famous mathematician Alan Turing and his work on cracking the Enigma cipher used by the Nazis in World War II.

Turing is an incredibly important figure in the field of computer science; along with Babbage and Lovelace you could very well say he invented it. Of course he invented it to make statements about mathematics (for a fun look at this area of math, see Logicomix) and therefore is also considered a famous mathematician. And finally, he’s known for being forced to take estrogen by the British courts to “cure” or suppress his homosexuality…

Apparently bigots are saying they won’t use Apple products anymore because Tim Cook is gay. Just wait til they find out about Alan Turing!

— Gina Upson (@Sprachstudentin), October 30, 2014

…and then dying of cyanide poisoning in an apparent suicide two years later.

(This review has minor spoilers; honestly, the summary of Turing’s achievements above is probably the most spoilery part.)

I think I generally enjoy stories about people I already admire, so the question of The Imitation Game was whether or not I ended up feeling like it respected Turing and the work at Bletchley Park. Ultimately—despite not having much knowledge about Turing, as opposed to his achievements—I think it did.

Is it historically accurate? Well, no, it has many inaccuracies. Most of them are standard dramatization—sacrificing correctness in favor of narrative. (Possibly surprisingly, Clarke and Turing’s relationship is not invented, nor the story of Christopher.) The largest technical flaw is probably the implication that the machine was entirely Turing’s creation, or Turing and his group. In reality, (a) the machine was based on an earlier design from Poland, created many years earlier, (b) Turing and co. didn’t actually build the machine (that was an engineering job), and (c) some of the people in the movie barely worked on it, while others who did weren’t in the movie.

The thing I was most concerned about at the time was the portrayal of Turing as somewhere on the autism spectrum. It took me long enough to learn that Turing was gay, but that’s at least well-established. I would have thought that, were Turing autistic, he would have been held up by autism rights movements and I would have heard about it by now. The “inaccuracies” article linked above includes this as unlikely and exaggerated in the movie, though my friends have pointed out that he wouldn’t have been diagnosed as such in the early 20th century.

I was a little disappointed that the movie couldn’t show any meaningful romantic relationships with men, but I suppose that would be completely fictional (assuming we just don’t know). And they didn’t really need to show his sexual relations any more than they did.

(Flatmate: “Except that then they’d get to show shirtless Benedict Cumberbatch, which some people care about.”)

The article also says this:

The Imitation Game implies that the estrogen treatment sent Alan into an emotional tailspin, but Turing seems to have continued his work and social relationships normally during his year of probation. The film also implies that the estrogen treatment triggered Alan’s suicide, but in fact the treatment ended in April 1953, fourteen months before Turing killed himself.

That is interesting. It goes on to say that we’re still not sure if it was suicide or not, though I’ve always heard it was. (It does make a better story.)

But even so. Turing’s work is respected, the Enigma part in particular is probably better overstated than understated (and it’s the focus of the movie), and the extra flair (mostly minor things, rather than these) make it feel like a pretty cohesive story. And they managed to cram in a reference to modern computers at the very end, so you have some greater idea who you’ve been watching this whole time.

So who should watch this movie? People who get a kick out of cryptography, non-battle war stories, and (accuracy be damned) positive portrayals of the autism spectrum, especially intersecting with being gay. And if this is how the general public thinks of Turing? Of Enigma and Bletchley Park? I’m okay with that.

(Is that really what the movie was about? Thinking about it now, from the perspective of someone not familiar with Turing…yes. Which results in a rather odd recommendation.)

/me imagines an alternate reality where (digital) computers are called Turing machines.