It turns out that breaking Nazi codes in World War II is a pretty simple affair. All you have to do is put half a dozen math wizards into a Quonset hut and make them argue a lot. If you’re lucky, one of them—the guy who stands out for his social awkwardness—turns out to be a cranky genius who single-handedly designs a miraculous machine that solves all their problems at a stroke.
Like all lonely heroes, though, this one suffers from a tragic flaw: he’s gay. He does his best to hide this weakness, but sometimes he just can’t help himself. So, for example, he names his remarkable machine after the dead school chum who was his first love. (This, of course, is designed to remind us of his inability to form stable human relationships.)
Fortunately, the hero does get an opportunity to partake of some much-needed psychotherapy. When the police start investigating a crime that reveals his homosexuality, he seizes the opportunity to unburden himself to a detective, spilling the beans about all of his ultrasecret wartime activities. Later, after court-mandated hormone therapy to “cure” him of his sexual urges reduces him to a sniveling wreck, he opts for the only logical way out: killing himself.
What I’m synopsizing here is The Imitation Game, a new movie that purports to tell the story of Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician and codebreaker whose individual contribution to Allied victory in World War II can be rightfully ranked in its significance alongside those of Eisenhower and Churchill. During his service at the now legendary British signals intelligence organization in Bletchley Park, some fifty-five miles northwest of London, Turing engineered the most effective attacks on encoded German communications—most memorably by figuring out how to track the insanely complicated workings of the Enigma, the formidable cipher machine that the German armed forces used for much of their communications.
Nor was Turing merely a phenomenally gifted cryptanalyst. As Jack Copeland elaborates in his fine recent biography, he also lives on for his pioneering work in the fields of computer science, artificial intelligence, and the mathematical bases of life. Every one of the smart devices that populate our lives today—every smartphone, tablet, laptop, and mainframe—owes its origins to Turing’s original vision of the stored-program computer (hardware that could change its function according to programs placed in memory rather than having to be rewired for each new task). As if this weren’t enough, Turing also turned out to be a gifted long-distance runner who competed on equal terms with Olympic athletes.
I’ve been fascinated by Turing ever since I came across the remarkable account of his life written by the British mathematician and gay rights activist Andrew Hodges in 1983. The moment of publication was no accident, for two reasons. First, by the early 1980s the story of Turing’s wartime efforts to break Nazi ciphers had receded just far enough in time to overcome the draconian security restrictions that had prevented it from being told. Second, gay rights campaigners in Europe and the US were enjoying some of their first big successes in breaking through long-standing discrimination. Suddenly it became possible not only to celebrate Turing’s enormous contribution to Allied victory in the war but also to tell the story of his 1952 conviction and subsequent punishment on charges of homosexuality (still a criminal offense in Great Britain at the time), followed by his death, at the age of forty-one, two years later. (For Hodges, as well as for the creators of The Imitation Game, this death was clearly a suicide; Copeland, intriguingly, isn’t so sure. More on that later.)
I can imagine many possible ways of turning this story into a movie. Yes, one can imagine the obstacles—among them the sheer eventfulness of the man’s life, and the fact that many of his most dramatic discoveries were predicated on knowledge of sophisticated mathematics (that well-known bane of the moviemaker). Yet none of this should serve as an excuse. The choice seems clear: either you embrace the richness of Turing as a character and trust the audience to follow you there, or you simply capitulate, by reducing him to a caricature of the tortured genius.
The latter, I’m afraid, is the path chosen by director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore. In their version, which I’ve summarized above, Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) conforms to the familiar stereotype of the otherworldly nerd: he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t even understand an invitation to lunch. This places him at odds not only with the other codebreakers in his unit, but also, equally predictably, positions him as a natural rebel.
Just to make sure we get the point, his recruitment to Bletchley Park is rendered as a ridiculous confrontation with Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance, of Game of Thrones fame), the Royal Navy officer then in charge of the British codebreaking effort: “How the bloody hell are you supposed to decrypt German communications if you don’t, oh, I don’t know, speak German?” thunders Denniston. “I’m quite excellent at crossword puzzles,” responds Turing. On various occasions throughout the film, Denniston tries to fire Turing or have him arrested for espionage, which is resisted by those who have belatedly recognized his redemptive brilliance. “If you fire Alan, you’ll have to fire me, too,” says one of his (formerly hostile) coworkers.
There’s no question that the real-life Turing was decidedly eccentric, and that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. But he could also be a wonderfully engaging character when he felt like it, notably popular with children and thoroughly charming to anyone for whom he developed a fondness.
All of this stands sharply at odds with his characterization in the film, which depicts him as a dour Mr. Spock who is disliked by all of his coworkers—with the possible exception of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). The film spares no opportunity to drive home his robotic oddness. He uses the word “logical” a lot and can’t grasp even the most modest of jokes. This despite the fact that he had a sprightly sense of humor, something that comes through vividly in the accounts of his friends, many of whom shared their stories with both Hodges and Copeland. (For the record, the real Turing was also a bit of a slob, with a chronic disregard for personal hygiene. The glamorous Cumberbatch, by contrast, looks like he’s just stepped out of a Burberry catalog.)
Now, one might easily dismiss such distortions as trivial. But actually they point to a much broader and deeply regrettable pattern. Tyldum and Moore are determined to suggest maximum dramatic tension between their tragic outsider and a blinkered society. But this not only fatally miscasts Turing as a character—it also completely destroys any coherent telling of what he and his colleagues were trying to do.
In reality, Turing was an entirely willing participant in a collective enterprise that featured a host of other brilliant intellects who happily coexisted to extraordinary effect. They were encouraged in their activities by a military leadership that, nonetheless, had a sound understanding of cryptological principles and operational security. As Copeland notes, the Nazis would have never allowed a bunch of frivolous eggheads to engage in such highly sensitive work, and they suffered the consequences. The film misses this entirely.
In Tyldum and Moore’s version of events, Turing and his small group of fellow codebreakers spend the first two years of the war in fruitless isolation; only in 1941 does Turing’s crazy machine finally show any results. This is a highly stylized version of Turing’s epic struggle to crack the hardest German cipher, the one used by the German navy, whose ravaging submarines nearly brought Britain to its knees during the early years of the war. What this account neglects to mention is that Turing’s “bombes”—electromechanical calculating devices designed to reconstruct the settings of the Enigma—were already helping to decipher German army and air force codes from early on.1
The movie version, in short, is a bizarre departure from the historical record. In reality, Bletchley Park—and not only Turing’s legendary Hut 8—was doing productive work from the very beginning of the war. Within a few years its motley assortment of codebreakers, linguists, stenographers, and communications experts were operating on a near-industrial scale. By the end of the war there were some nine thousand people working on the project, processing thousands of intercepts per day.2
Denniston, depicted by the film as Turing’s blimpish nemesis, was actually an experienced cryptanalyst with over two decades of experience by the start of the war. He was among those who, in 1939, debriefed the three Polish experts who had already spent years poring over Enigma communications. It was their work that provided the template for Turing’s electromechanical bombes. For all its sophistication, Turing’s bombe design had absolutely nothing to do with “an electrical brain” or “a digital computer,” which is how it’s described in The Imitation Game. Screenwriter Moore seems to be conflating the bombes with the Colossus, a proto-computer that was put into service at Bletchley in the later years of the war. Though the Colossus built on some of his insights about the uses of probability in cryptanalysis, Turing played no part in its actual design or construction.
Unfortunately, however, it was precisely the rapid expansion of Bletchley Park that soon revealed Denniston’s deficiencies as a manager, prompting a group of cryptologists, including Turing and the former Cambridge chess champion Hugh Alexander, to make a direct plea to Churchill for more resources. Revealingly, The Imitation Game twists this episode into its near opposite: the movie has Turing make a solitary appeal to Churchill, in direct antagonism to Alexander and just about everyone else. The notion that a quirky Cambridge don like Turing, motivated by a widely shared sense of patriotism and duty, could have worked happily within a complex organization that not only tolerated his idiosyncrasies but actively abetted them utterly eludes the filmmakers.
Indeed, a bit like one of those smartphones that bristles with unneeded features, the film does its best to ladle in extra doses of intrigue where none existed. Tyldum and Moore conjure up an entirely superfluous subplot involving John Cairncross, who was spying for the Soviet Union during his service at Bletchley Park. There’s no evidence that he ever crossed paths with Turing—Bletchley, contrary to the film, was much bigger than a single hut—but The Imitation Game includes him among Turing’s coworkers. When Turing discovers his true allegiance, Cairncross turns the tables on him, saying that he’ll reveal Turing’s homosexuality if his secret is divulged. Turing backs off, leaving the spy in place.
Not many of the critics seem to have paid attention to this detail—except for the historian Alex von Tunzelmann, who pointed out that the filmmakers have thus managed, almost as an afterthought, to turn their hero into a traitor.3 The movie tries to soften this by revealing that Stewart Menzies, the head of the Special Intelligence Service, has known about Cairncross’s treachery from the start—a jury-rigged solution to a gratuitous plot problem. (In fact, Cairncross, “the fifth man,” was never prosecuted.)
These errors are not random; there is a method to the muddle. The filmmakers see their hero above all as a martyr of a homophobic Establishment, and they are determined to lay emphasis on his victimhood. The Imitation Game ends with the following title: “After a year of government-mandated hormonal therapy, Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954.” This is in itself something of a distortion. Turing was convicted on homosexuality charges in 1952, and chose the “therapy” involving female hormones—aimed, in the twisted thinking of the times, at suppressing his “unnatural” desires—as an alternative to jail time. It was barbarous treatment, and Turing complained that the pills gave him breasts. But the whole miserable episode ended in 1953—a full year before his death, something not made clear to the filmgoer.
Copeland, who has taken a fresh look at the record and spoken with many members of Turing’s circle, disputes that the experience sent Turing into a downward spiral of depression. By the accounts of those who knew him, he bore the injustice with fortitude, then spent the next year enthusiastically pursuing projects. Copeland cites a number of close friends (and Turing’s mother) who saw no evidence that he was depressed in the days before his death, and notes that the coroner who concluded that Turing had died by biting a cyanide-laced apple never examined the fruit. Copeland offers sound evidence that the death might have actually been accidental, the result of a self-rigged laboratory where Turing was conducting experiments with cyanide. He left no suicide letter.
Copeland also leaves open the possibility of foul play, which can’t be dismissed out of hand, when you consider that all of this happened during the period of McCarthyite hysteria, an era when homosexuality was regarded as an inherent “security risk.” Turing’s government work meant that he knew a lot of secrets, in the postwar period as well. It’s likely we’ll never know the whole story.
One thing is certain: Turing could be remarkably naive about his own homosexuality. It was Turing himself who reported the fateful 1952 burglary, probably involving a working-class boyfriend, that brought his gay lifestyle to the attention to the police, thus setting off the legal proceedings against him. In The Imitation Game he holds this information back from the cops, who then cleverly wheedle it out. It’s another indication of the filmmakers’ determination to show Turing as an essentially passive figure. He’s never the master of his own destiny.
But even if you believe that Turing was driven to his death, The Imitation Game’s treatment of his fate borders on the ridiculous. In one of the film’s most egregious scenes, his wartime friend Joan pays him a visit in 1952 or so, while he’s still taking his hormones. She finds him shuffling around the house in his bathrobe, barely capable of putting together a coherent sentence. He tells her that he’s terrified that the powers that be will take away “Christopher”—his latest computer, which he’s named after the dead friend of his childhood (just as he did with his machine at Bletchley Park).
As near as I can tell, there is no basis for any of this in the historical record; it’s monstrous hogwash, a conceit entirely cooked up by Moore.4 The real Turing certainly paid periodic and dignified respects to the memory of his first love, Christopher Morcom, but I doubt very much that he ever confused his computers with people. In perhaps the most bitter irony of all, the filmmakers have managed to transform the real Turing, vivacious and forceful, into just the sort of mythological gay man, whiney and weak, that homophobes love to hate.
This is indicative of the bad faith underlying the whole enterprise, which is desperate to put Turing in the role of a gay liberation totem but can’t bring itself to show him kissing another man—something he did frequently, and with gusto. And it most definitely doesn’t show him cruising New York’s gay bars, or popping off on a saucy vacation to one of the less reputable of the Greek islands. The Imitation Game is a film that prefers its gay men decorously disembodied.
I should stress that I’m not trying to hold up the film to some unattainable standard. We know that movies about long-past events invariably end up taking liberties with the facts. Squeezing history into the cramped format of a movie screen requires certain shortcuts. Yet surely there are limits to the liberties a biopic can take. When a movie like The Imitation Game expressly claims to be telling a story based on fact, we have a right to judge it accordingly. At minimum, we should expect a film to keep to a version of events that is recognizably close to what actually happened, and that its creators will deploy dramatic license with the aim of telling a coherent and persuasive story. Ideally, the filmed version of history should enlarge and refresh our understanding of the past rather than do violence to it. The Imitation Game fails on all of these counts.
The film’s ultimate sin, in my view, is that it aspires to reduce its hero to a formula—a cipher, if you will. During my first viewing of The Imitation Game, I was struck by how eagerly it revealed the workings of its own plot well in advance. About a third of the way in I realized, with gathering dread, that we would soon be coming to a scene in which a character makes an offhanded remark that inspires the hero to jump to his feet with an awestruck expression, thereupon announcing an astonishing discovery that resolves everything at a single stroke.5 And that’s exactly how it happens—complete with portentous dialogue about the high moral costs involved. (“Alan, you don’t get to decide who lives and dies,” someone intones. “Yes, we do,” Alan replies. “But no one else can.”)
Turing then informs the rest of his crew that, having grasped the secret of life and death, they will now have to explain to their superiors that cover stories will need to be crafted in order to conceal the codebreakers’ triumph from the Germans. (Comically, the film’s heroes are shown explaining their supersensitive plans to Menzies, Britain’s top spy, in a public tearoom.) In real life, of course, this was hardly necessary. The soldiers, the spies, and the politicians all had a pretty clear idea of the stakes involved from the very beginning, and they went to elaborate efforts to disguise what they really knew. The British secret services covered their growing success against German U-boats, for example, by strategically strewing rumors of ultra-powerful new sonar systems. A host of other deceptions prevented the Germans from realizing that the British had actually figured out how to lift the lid on all of their secrets.
And indeed, no one proved to be better at keeping the trust than Bletchley Park’s experts themselves. Copeland documents the determination with which the former codebreakers kept quiet about what they knew, in some cases maintaining their discretion until well into the present century. This was not a generation that believed in oversharing. Turing’s own mother told Copeland that her relationship with her son was damaged by his persistent refusal to discuss anything even remotely relating to his own activities during the war; he appears, quite literally, to have taken his secrets with him to the grave. The real-life Turing would have sneered at his film counterpart’s willingness to blab everything to some police inspector he’s just met—a scandalous and improbable security breach that probably does more to dishonor Turing’s memory than just about anything else in the movie, which invents the conversation as a cheap narrative device.
To be honest, I’m a bit surprised that there hasn’t been more pushback against The Imitation Game by intelligence professionals, historians, and survivors of Turing’s circle. But I think I understand why. After so many years in which Turing failed to get his due, no one wants to be seen as spoiling the party. I strongly doubt, though, that many of those in the know are recommending this film to their friends. (For his part, Andrew Hodges is apparently opting to avoid talking about the movie during his current book tour—it’s easy to imagine why he might choose to do so, and I don’t fault him for it.6)
If you want to see a richly imagined British movie about a fascinating historical character, go see Mike Leigh’s new film about the painter William Turner. But if you want to see the real Alan Turing, you’re better off reading the books.
The first bombe went into action in March 1940. Copeland notes that Bletchley Park decrypts helped to win the Battle of Britain in the summer of that year. See pp. 68–69. ↩
According to the historian Richard J. Aldrich, there were 8,902 people working for the codebreaking project when the war ended. See GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency (Harper, 2011), p. 68. ↩
“The Imitation Game: Inventing a New Slander to Insult Alan Turing,” The Guardian, November 20, 2014. ↩
Turing’s mother told Copeland that her son was at the “apex of his mental powers” in the last year of his life. ↩
Just to make matter worse, the discovery in question hinges on the notion of a “crib,” an often-repeated word or phrase in enciphered texts—“Heil Hitler!” or “today’s weather report”—that cryptanalysts can use as a point of attack. Far from being a stunning innovation introduced by Alan Turing, cribs are a standard part of the cryptanalytical toolbox. The movie’s eureka scene is thus the equivalent of a criminal lawyer declaring, “Good Lord! It turns out that there’s a thing called the Fifth Amendment, which allows a suspect to avoid incriminating herself.” ↩
See Linda Arntzenius, “Andrew Hodges Speaks on Alan Turing at Princeton Public Library Thursday,” Town Topics, December 3, 2014. ↩