Sunday, December 21, 2014

Movie Review: "The Imitation Game"

Alan Turing was one of the most brilliant minds of the last century. Yet because of the work he did, and the circumstances of his death, very few people know of him and what he accomplished. Hopefully, thanks to The Imitation Game, people may better understand the history-making contributions he made to our world.

At the start of World War II, Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), an instructor at Kings College Cambridge and a published mathematician, goes to a job interview conducted by the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School. A military operation is searching for a way to break the German army's Enigma code so messages can be intercepted and the Nazis can be defeated. But this isn't a simple code—it changes every day at midnight, and there are millions and millions of possible permutations to consider.

Turing's confidence in his own intelligence, combined his with utter social awkwardness and obliviousness, quickly irritates the military commander (Charles Dance) who still reluctantly hires him, and then completely alienates him from the team of men with whom he is to work. And when the team leader (Matthew Goode) refuses to let Turing build the "super machine" he thinks could break the code, Turing takes matters into his own creative hands, and quickly gets control of the group, although he further raises the ire of the commander.

An effort to recruit additional people for the operation introduces Turing to Joan Clarke (a plucky Keira Knightley), a highly intelligent woman who wants a career far beyond those women were allowed in the 1940s. Joan is the perfect intellectual complement to Turing, a sounding board for his ideas and someone who tries to help him negotiate the more human side of his work. But while Turing truly enjoys Joan's companionship, he harbors a major secret of his own—he is gay—and the disclosure of this secret could land him in prison.

The Imitation Game follows Turing and his team as they race against time—and the powerful Nazis wreaking destruction across the world—to try and break the code. Turing must overcome those who doubt his abilities and the power of the machine he has built, he must battle the commander bent on firing him and labeling him a spy, and he must figure out a way to make sense of his life as it is unfolding. It is a heavy load for anyone to bear, especially someone who has always felt on the outside looking in.

I have always been a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch. His eyes are tremendously expressive, and his performances always combine steely strength with emotional vulnerability. (See his marvelous work in both Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Star Trek Into Darkness and you'll see what I mean.) But Cumberbatch is an absolute revelation as Alan Turing. Confident in his intellect yet insecure in what he is trying to accomplish, conflicted about the aftereffects of his work, and emotionally fragile, his Turing is so complex, admirable yet awkward, irascible yet sympathetic. While Cumberbatch's performance isn't as showy as Eddie Redmayne's in The Theory of Everything and isn't a comeback like Michael Keaton's in Birdman, it is his performance that affected me most profoundly. He already has received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, and I expect to see him nominated for an Oscar next month, deservedly so.

Knightley brings some of her trademark toughness to her role yet she imbues Joan with tremendous sensitivity and even a little vulnerability. She more than holds her own in her scenes with Cumberbatch, in particular the scene when he admits to her that he is gay. She, too, has been nominated for both Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards, and also is deserving of an Oscar nomination for her performance. The members of Turing's team—Goode, Allen Leech, and Matthew Beard, in particular—each have strong moments, as does Mark Strong as Turing's MI6 defender.

If I have any criticism about this movie it's the way it's structured. The movie shifts between 1951, when a robbery at Turing's home leads a police detective to suspect that the man is hiding something, to Turing's work during the war. It also periodically moves to the late 1920s, when he was a young man at boarding school and first let his emotional guard down. While I understand the need to tell all three parts of this story, the shifts back and forth were a little jarring, and at the end, what I really wanted to see was how they broke the Enigma code.

The Imitation Game is well done but I found it a bit difficult and painful to watch. But in the end, I hope that people realize what an incredible genius Alan Turing was, and realize that some of the greatest minds our world has seen aren't always the ones we expect, and are far from perfect.

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