Don’t listen to the people who say what you learn in Math class is useless and you will probably not use it ever again in your life. Whoever those people are, they are wrong. Mathematics can save the world, and this week’s film The Imitation Game will show you how.
A Biographical Film about the Mathematician and Codebreaker Alan Turing
For those who don’t know who Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is, you should. He was an early pioneer in the development of the computer and led a team of British codebreakers to decipher Germany’s Enigma machine. He brought a group of linguists and mathematicians together, including the genius puzzle solver Joan Clarke (played brilliantly by Kiera Knightley), at Bletchley Park to break the code under a top secret military program. Ultimately, the decoding was one of the most important actions in the War and was essential to the eventual Allied victory as it allowed British intelligence to know many of the Nazi’s war plans. The Imitation Game, directed by the now Oscar-nominated Norwegian Morten Tyldum, is a biographical film about Alan Turing, depicting three parts of his life: his childhood at school, his work during World War II in Bletchley Park, and his time after the war in Manchester. The narrative is non-linear, flitting between these periods, with the bulk of the plot and drive coming from the War scenes.
Cumberbatch as Turing
As a biopic, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Oscar-ready performance is centre-stage. He does play Turing a little like a 1940s Sheldon Cooper, although with more sympathy and fewer laughs. Turing has been retrospectively diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which probably explains his similarity to Sheldon as an irascible genius. Tyldum and Cumberbatch seem to underplay the diagnosis and suggest Turing’s social iciness not as stemming from a diagnosed condition but instead as a consequence of childhood trauma and bullying. Turing’s struggles are mirrored by Joan Clarke’s, who at every turn is thwarted in her ambitions primarily due to the fact that she was a woman. Clarke, for example, was not awarded a full degree from Cambridge, despite scoring a double first (which in the Filipino grading system converts to a Magna Cum Laude) because Cambridge at the time did not give full degrees to women.
There has been a worry about the lack of physicality in the depiction of Turing’s sexuality as a gay man. There is not even a gay kiss in the film, and some have seen this lack as a kind of cover up, despite the fact that Turing’s sexuality is mentioned explicitly and is even key in two of the film’s plot twists. The coyness seems to me a stylistic choice that emphasizes the hidden nature of Turing’s sexuality, given the fact it was both socially ostracized and a criminal offense at the time. I do read in this choice a kind of squeamishness. Showing gay sex would not necessarily have vulgarized the film but would have helped in normalizing Turing’s sexuality further for modern audiences. If the film makers are as keen as they have said they are to portray Turing as a kind of gay martyr, to be prudish about depicting homosexual activity is a kind of hypocrisy. Had he been gay and not had gay sex, Turing would have risked nothing. The sex was part of the story.
A Marginalized Perspective of War
However, the central point of the film is that it is a look at the war from both a queer perspective through Turing’s eyes and a feminist one through Clarke’s. The Imitation Game makes a poignant companion piece to another Oscar nominated film, American Sniper. Both films are about war heroes, but Eastwood’s film defines heroism by a traditionally masculine warrior archetype. Tyldum’s film presents us primarily with two heroes, both of whom do not fit any traditional warrior mould; both mathematicians, one gay and the other female, working at ending a war not by violence but by brain power. This reads as an anti-war film, primarily because the main view point is from a character who suffers from violence, knows that it begets more violence, and therefore does not see it as a means to end conflict. In a sense, the film posits that it is Turing’s queer experience of heteronormative abuse that ultimately allows him to transcend traditional perspectives in order to really revolutionize the world. However, this elevated view point also eventually costs him a heavy price.
Great Themes Conventionally Told
The Imitation Game deals with themes that no other war film has ever tackled successfully. That it does so in a conventional style will be disappointing to some. There are scenes of the codebreaking that feel very artificial, spanners in the work that seem thrown in to build up the tension. The conventional narrative style, however, does make the story very accessible, which ultimately brings it to more people; this is a story about which everyone should know. Alan Turing deserves fame, respect and admiration as one of the people who made the modern world and who helped save that same world from the evils of the Nazis.
The Imitation Game is showing in Cebu theatres this weekend February 6-8, 2015.