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Intolerable Cruelty

The Imitation Game unveils the despicable way England treated one of World War II’s greatest heroes, Alan Turing

Fans of BBC’s Sherlock might well feel that old game-is-afoot thrill in the first few minutes of The Imitation Game. “I know things you do not know,” says Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing, another British genius making an art form of antisocial behavior while proving themselves indispensable to society. Unlike Holmes, cryptographer Turing—whose work contributed, at minimum, to the modern computer and artificial intelligence—never seems to be doing it on purpose. Like Holmes, however, Turing does love an almost impossible puzzle, and the Cambridge-educated mathematician has secured an interview for a job solving the toughest one available in Allied Europe circa 1939: breaking the German military’s heretofore unbreakable code. Produced by a mysterious machine called the Enigma, the code is based on a complex system that resets itself everyday at midnight, allowing the Allies no chance to decipher it.

But while British lives hang in the balance, threatened both by the Nazis’ imminent blitzkrieg and their chokehold on the Allies’ supply lines, Code and Cypher School head commander Alastair Denniston is ready to throw Turing, one of the nation’s top minds in mathematics, out of his office over a bad first impression. Fortunately for everyone but Hitler, Denniston (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance) begrudgingly concedes to give Turing a crack at Enigma, but only while second-guessing his every move and constantly threatening him with termination and worse.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, working from Graham Moore’s screenplay, intercuts Turing’s efforts to solve the “puzzle” with scenes from his school days a dozen years earlier. Savagely bullied for his differences, 15-year-old Turing (Alex Lawther, who more than holds his own as Boy Benedict) first learns to write in code in order to communicate with Christopher (Jack Bannon), his only friend—and maybe more—in secret. Developing codes only they can decipher, the two begin tentatively exploring their true feelings for each other. The nonlinear narrative is framed by the 1952 burglary and subsequent police investigation that led to Turing’s arrest for “gross indecency” (being gay in the 1950s), and the technique gives a feeling of real suspense to the story, turning a highly technical historical drama into a mystery thriller.

In the World War II era, Turing overcomes much resistance from Denniston—at points even enlisting the help of Winston Churchill and the top-secret MI6 agency in order to further his efforts. His plan to defeat Enigma hinged on building an even more powerful machine since, as he reasoned, only a machine can think like a machine. The resulting “universal machine,” which Turing names Christopher, would become a direct descendant of the modern day computer.

Still, Turing encounters countless unforeseen problems, many caused by the mistrust his oddness instills in the close-minded people around him. The film’s chief mystery, which goes unsolved, is why many are so needlessly cruel to people different from them, even ones they so desperately need. And Turing, at that time, was badly needed. But his most controversial decision may have been hiring Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the best man for the job even though she has the extreme disadvantage of being a woman in a male-dominated field. Turing’s team is more outraged by her hiring than almost any other decision he makes throughout the film. (Keep in mind: Turing’s duties require him to regularly weigh the possibility of saving real human lives now versus ultimately winning the war using a process he calls “blood-soaked calculus.”) Many don’t have the ability or will to make such unpopular, heart-wrenching decisions while facing overwhelming opposition, but the intolerance Turing faced due to personal differences was ultimately his own undoing.

After his conviction under an indecency law from the 1800s, Turing was forced to choose between a prison sentence and chemical castration. He chose the latter in order to continue work on his “universal machine.” He committed suicide two years later, nearly 60 years before the Queen of England finally issued a pardon and apology. Turing, who theorized at great length about methods for differentiating human beings from unfeeling machines, would’ve probably noted that computers, even extremely primitive models like Christopher, have at least one advantage over people: Computers seem so much easer to reprogram.

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