Perhaps like no other single person, Alan Turing helped win the second World War. He created the “bombe,” a cryptanalysis machine that broke the Enigma cipher used by German army and navy forces. Now his life—and to a lesser extent, his work—is getting the big-screen treatment with The Imitation Game, which was released today in the United Kingdom and will open in the United States on 28 November.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays “odd fish” Turing, so convincingly that you forget that you’re looking at Sherlock Holmes or Star Trek’s Khan. What comes across is a socially inept, unlikely hero with a brilliant mind and a tortured soul—and one who was gay in a time when homosexuality in Britain was illegal.
Cumberbatch stoops and stutters his way through Turing’s personal contradictions. He’s socially insecure, but at the same time he has complete belief in his ability as a mathematician. He’s the smartest man in the room, knows it, doesn’t try to hide it, and doesn’t get why that offends others. At school, the young Alan tells Christopher, his first love, that he doesn’t understand people when they talk to him—too many nuances, too many meanings in what they say or to be inferred from what they say. Throughout the film, Turing engages directly with the object of his thoughts and ignores the social etiquette that seeks to qualify, hide, or color what is being said. He can immediately see the whole picture all at once—ideal for an engineer, infuriating in a friend or a workmate.
The bulk of the movie takes place at Bletchley Park, where a team of cryptographers strove to break the Enigma cipher. The cipher was generated by a portable typewriter-like machine used to encode messages before their radio transmission. Enigma machines had multiple electromechanical rotors and plug boards that allowed each message to be encoded with a unique key. Polish cryptographers had done vital early work in understanding the operation of the machine and how it might be attacked, but the movie points out that the Enigma had so many potential settings that using human minds alone to decode a message would have required code breakers to go through 20 million settings in 20 minutes. We also get a good look at Turing’s bombe, a huge bank of wires, levers, and dials that was carefully reproduced for the movie. (I was able to get a close look at the facsimile, as it’s currently in an exhibition of props from the film at Bletchley Park.)
The narrative is a classic race against time. Will the cryptographers decode Enigma before Britain succumbs to the German naval blockade? Before Hitler invades Britain? Before the Nazis win the war? But this isn’t really a film about technology, code breaking, or computers. It’s firmly focused on Turing and his journey.
Turing, of course, is the only man who can win the race, but first he needs to overcome opposition both from within the British military, in the person of Commander Alistair Dennison (played by Charles Dance), who dislikes Turing’s impertinence, and from his fellow code breakers, who resent Turing’s detachment and arrogance.
It all turns out for the best, though. Joan Clarke, played by Kiera Knightley, is a code breaker, friend, kindred spirit, and for a short time, Turing’s fiancé. She shows Turing the need to connect with his teammates. Turing wins them over, and together they get around Dennison, crack Enigma, and win the war. It’s Coach Carter meets Rocky III, with a bit of The Longest Day and Forrest Gump thrown in for good measure.
The movie takes some artistic license, of course. Turing’s bombe was actually not a computer as described on-screen but an electromechanical device capable of doing just one job. Another Bletchley Park machine, Colossus—used to break a separate cipher Hitler used to communicate with his top leaders—was the world’s first programmable electronic computer (although German engineer Konrad Zuse, who built the Z3 in 1941, might have disagreed).
Turing also initially worked alone when he started code breaking full-time in 1939, not in a group, and only on the Nazis’ naval variant of the Enigma machine, while another team worked on cracking the German army’s Enigma cipher. The other code breakers featured in The Imitation Game came in later. Chess champion Hugh Alexander (played by Matthew Goode) and John Cairncross (Allen Leach) didn’t come to Bletchley Park until 1941 and then worked on a different cipher.
But this movie is about Turing, and the great tragedy that happens to him after the war requires no embellishment. The year 1952 found him sitting in a Manchester police cell, under arrest for gross indecency. Information about Turing’s war efforts was still classified: To the Manchester police he was just a university professor who had committed a sex crime with a man 20 years his junior. After his conviction, Turing’s chosen punishment was to accept estrogen treatments to reduce his libido. The alternative—two years in prison—would have taken him away from his work.
Two years after his arrest, Turing killed himself with cyanide (although some believe it was an accidental poisoning). It wasn’t until the British government declassified war files in the 1970s that people found out what Turing and the other code breakers had done during the war. It took several decades more before the Queen posthumously pardoned Turing in 2013.
Over the years Turing has become something of a cipher himself, the person vanishing behind the varied iconography of the computer pioneer, the code breaker, and the victim of prejudice. The Imitation Game restores something of the humanity of a complex figure.
About the Author
Crispin Andrews is a freelance writer from England. He writes about science, technology, popular culture history, sports, and the unexplained.