January 26, 2015

Queer Review: The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game
Director: Morten Tyldum
Writers: Graham Moore. Based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, James Northcote, Alex Lawther, Jack Bannon

Thankfully The Imitation Game does not fall prey to the tendency of filmmakers to de-emphasize a heroic LGBTQ historical figures sexual identity. What we do get is a powerful, well made film about one of the more ironic chapters of human history. Alan Turing's work was influential in the fields of Mathematics, Philosophy, and Cryptology and he is considered the Father of Computer Science. His work on codebreaking is credited by historians has potentially having shortened the World War II, thereby saving countless lives. However, his ultimate fate might not have been very different had the Axis powers won that great conflict.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the most talented mathematicians of his time, applies to Bletchley Park (the British center tasked with decoding German communications during World War II. He is accepted and immediately makes enemies with his immediate supervisor and coworkers due to his abrasive personality and his idea that a new kind of machine is necessary to break the German encoding device known as Enigma. As Turing puts it, it will "take a machine to break a machine". Further complications occur when Turing attempts to hire a talented female mathematician, Joan Clark (Kiera Knightly), to help with the decoding efforts, only to have her face severe sexism that hinders the contributions she can make. Eventually, Turing is successful in building the first decoding Machine (which he dubs Christopher after a childhood love) and ultimately aiding the Allies in their eventual victory over Germany.

This does not prevent Turings' inevitable fate when he confesses to having sexual relations with another man and is forced to participate in hormone therapy or go to jail.

The Queering
When I was growing up, my mom refused to allow us a TV and thus the two of us would frequently listen to audiobooks as a form of communal entertainment instead. While I have not (as of this writing) seen the 2001 film Enigma (an alternative version of the Bletchley Park story where Alan Turing was written out and replaced with an entirely heterosexual character), I do clearly recall listening to the audio book with my mother. I do remember that the tale that was told was one of a sweeping romance where the hero and his lover must face impossible odds while working against impossible odds to break the German codes.

Such is the history that a homophobic society would have us believe, one in which queer people simply do not exist but as victims or villians. This is how our history is stolen from us, not merely by presenting only the stories of us as monsters or victims, but by presenting the lives of our heroes as if they themselves were straight.

There is a vocal group of critics who will leap upon any historical inaccuracy in a film which deviates from history in even the smallest of details. Similarly, justification for homophobic language is simply given as "well, that's just the way people talk". However, when films present a LGBTQ character as heterosexual and/or cisgender, then the result is typically nothing more than a deafening silence.

In The Imitation Game there are a few deviations from history, mostly around simplifying the work being done at Bletchley Park and with how the decoding of the Enigma machine was actually used by the Allies. But these generally do not detract from the narrative, other than in one particularly contrived case where one of the codebreakers, after the decoding is first accomplished, reveals that one of his relatives is on part of a group about to be attacked, and the team must make the contrived decision to allow German attack to be carried out, rather than risk revealing to the Germans that Enigma has been broken. It's a small misstep, but it happens at a time when the film should be soaring.

Other deviations include making Turing to be more anti-social than he probably was. While the real Turing was indeed eccentric, he is written as if Graham Moore believes Turing to be a high-functioning autistic (allow me to insert the obligatory "not that there is anything wrong with that" disclaimer here) and his caustic relationship with his co-workers. The only problem with this is that it causes Turing to come across at times as a pan-romantic asexual. The only thing that prevents such an interpretation, is Turing repeatedly identifying as "homosexual" and his eventual prosecution for sexual deviance. As it is, Turing is never shown engaging in a same sex relationship or any kind of romance as an adult.

In any case, what is demonstrated very well by the film is the way in which Turing's work as codebreaker, philosopher, and mathematician was influenced by his sexuality. The most obvious as presented in the film, was the how the death of Christopher Morcom, drove Turing to consider how machines themselves might be able to think and to store consciousness. Turing believed that it might be possible someday for them to store human consciousness. He also developed what is known as the Turing Test (also known as the imitation test or game), which is an artificial test to determine if a machine is "thinking". Another thing that is done well by the film is the presentation of Turing's philosophical work into the question of Artificial Intelligence. The framing sequence, where Turing is being interrogated by a detective, has the two debating the question at length.

What is equally interesting, is the double meaning that can be read into the title. Does the imitation game refer to the Turing Test or to the imitation that LGBTQ people are constantly forced into, when we must imitate the lives of cisgender, heterosexuals? Either could apply to the life of Turing, who became engaged to Joan Clarke while they were working together at Bletchley Park. Fortunately, the filmmakers go out of their way to make it clear, that while Clarke and Turing were very close friends, their relationship was not in anyway romantic but based upon both of them facing different, but parallel forms of discrimination. While I don't wish to take anything away from Turing, it is worth noting that despite modern stereotypes, computer programming was once primarily seen as being a woman's work, due to it's secretarial nature and the fact that it could be done at home.

However, the greatest irony of Turings' life is not one that is often addressed. The NAZI's themselves were of course notoriously homophobic and imprisoned many gay men in concentration camps, where numerous expirements were performed on them in order to determine a cure for homosexuality. Such experiments included castration. As it were, Alan Turings' eventual prosecution at the hands of the British might have been only slightly better than his fate would have been at the hands of the NAZI's. Thus, while Turing's work was instrumental to an Allied Victory during World War II, he was not able to fully enjoy the results of his work.

Further irony comes in the fact that Turings' case was not unique, in the years leading up to 9/11 and aftewards during the US led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, numerous translators specializing in Arabic and Farsi were let go from the US Military for violating DADT. Some have speculated that had they had not been fired, the US would have had a chance to prevent 9/11.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an impressive performance as Alan Turring, and able support is provided by his costars Kiera Knightley and Mathew Goode. The scene where Turing committed suicide was filmed, but not included in the theatrical version. Turings' final fate thus is revealed by title cards. This is the correct choice in my opinion. While it is important to note the consequences that Turing faced for being gay, too many of stories told about us go out of their way to needlessly demonstrate how miserable being queer can be. As it is, the film ends on a bittersweet note, with scenes of Turing and his coworkers celebrating the end of World War II. This perhaps is the best thing that we should remember Turing, how his accomplishments changed our world for the better. How he died is important, but only because those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, as historian George Santayana (who was either gay or bi) would have put it.

Highly recommended. This is no imitation of a great movie, it has the heart of the real thing.

The Rating
Four Stars out of Four.


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