“Based on a true story.” These words, white on a black screen, are the first that greet the audience at the start of The Imitation Game, the new Alan Turing biopic from director Morten Tyldum. It is a phrase that has become all too familiar (it also appears at the onset of Big Eyes and, one would expect, Unbroken, two other new releases currently in theaters), one that serves no real purpose other than implying that either audiences don’t know enough about history to realize Turing was a real person prior to arriving at their screening of the film, or that the additional reminder that a version of these events happened would positively alter one’s perception of the story presented. Of course, films like these are never entirely true, and always feature some amount of either embellished or fictional moments to make it more exciting or better for the screen or something, and the onus is on the audience to determine after the fact what was truth and what fiction. The product of these digressions can be dangerous, especially when the subject is one of the more tragic miscarriages of justice of the modern era.
The Imitation Game presents Turing in three phases of his life: the time of his arrest for gross indecency (read: homosexuality), his time at school as a young boy when he first fell in love with codebreaking, and, for the bulk of the film, his time during World War II when he was instrumental in the construction of a machine that could break the Nazi’s presumably impenetrable Enigma coded messaging system. Turing is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, playing a sort of lilting, effete version of his take on Sherlock Holmes (both characters seem to have that mix of near-sociopathy with perhaps a dash of autism, do not do particularly well with other people, have no interest in women and are on an intellectual level that dwarfs their peers). His superiors are a man who wants him fired (Charles Dance) for wasting military time and resources and a man who believes he just might crack the code (Mark Strong). His team consists of Matthew Goode as his chief rival, Keira Knightley as his pseudo-love interest and a few others who are mostly unremarkable, save Allen Leech, for reasons that become clear later.
The film turns on the successful cracking of the Nazi code, and uses its flashbacks and present day framing device to provide additional background into Turing’s character. So it’s pretty standard biopic operating procedure. Indeed, standard operating procedure is the term of the day when it comes to The Imitation Game, a film that takes one of the great stories of World War II and turns it into just another movie. Its presentation of events is about as perfunctory as it gets, following just about every cliche in the biopic book. It is a shame, because not only does Turing’s story deserve to be told in an engaging way, but Graham Moore’s screenplay seems to have a knack for emphasizing all the wrong story elements, while giving the most cursory glance to what is often more beguiling.
As a case in point, it is clear that all the filmmakers really care about is Christopher (the code breaking machine, sentimentally named after one of Turing’s childhood friends in a cheap attempt to grasp at resonance), and the cracking of the Enigma code. Once that happens in an admittedly thrilling sequence (that comes on the heels of the well-worn “genius hears some out of context piece of information that leads to a Eureka moment” trope), the film dovetails into a fascinating moral quandary: how can British intelligence use the stolen messages without making it clear that they have broken the code? This concept and its psychological effect on those involved could have been the subject of its own film, but Moore and Tyldum bulldoze right through it. Turing’s homosexuality is barely more than a tool, first to get him to commit treason for no particularly good reason, and second to shoehorn in some emotion at the film’s end as he is undergoing the barbaric chemical castration that would eventually lead to him taking his own life (a fact that is mentioned in a series of infuriating and fleeting title card at the film’s end, superimposed over laughing people burning the evidence of their work with MI-6). The final sequence is a baldly emotional one, but one that can only be viewed from a distance due to the film’s general disinterest in this vital side of his life until it becomes useful to the plot. It is a raw deal for a man who should have been a hero and was not even pardoned for his “crimes” until last year.
Cumberbatch’s performance does, for the most part, provide a through-line onto which one can hold. Matthew Goode remains wonderful in nearly everything he does, Knightley has always been good at playing roles like this, and both Dance and Strong give some color to one-dimensional ciphers and cardboard villains (Strong is particularly good in that respect). The film is not painful to watch, and its technical merits are adequate. What it is, though, is a titanic letdown, a film that attempted to focus predominantly on one historical event (like Lincoln did quite successfully) while at the same time giving a sort of lifelong biographical overview (like The Iron Lady did quite unsuccessfully). It attempts to be the best of both worlds and finds itself the best of neither. Alan Turing was a fascinating man. He was at the forefront of the digital revolution, a sort of mind that saw the world through different eyes, seeking knowledge and discovery where others would never even have thought to look. It is tragic, then, that his story would be so watered down, so safe and uninspired and routine, molded and formed like a processed cheese for mass consumption. Turing deserves better.