Everything about this movie at first glance screams “shallow awards bait.” It’s a film that takes place in Britain during WWII, and it’s a biopic about a genius who made a great leap in technology. It’s like Papa Weinstein (yes, this is a Weinstein Company release, so chalk up another Oscar cliche) saw the Best Picture campaign of 2010 between The King’s Speech and The Social Network and asked “Hey! What if we put them together?”
Oh, and it stars Benedict Cumberbatch as an eccentric and arrogant misfit genius with questionable sexuality. Because, you know, that’s never ever been done before.
Yet here we are with The Imitation Game, an Oscar favorite that comes with extremely high critical praise. And I’m very glad to say that it’s not undeserved.
This is the story of Alan Turing (played here by Cumberbatch), the de facto father of modern computing. Though Turing was known as a professor of mathematics who had published multiple papers about theoretical thinking machines, he had secretly led a small covert team of cryptographers to break the Nazi code produced by the Enigma machine, thought throughout the world to be unbreakable. Eventually, Turing came upon the idea that it takes a machine to beat a machine. Thus he and his team invented a device that could automatically break the Enigma code, and the results became the great-granddaddy of the machine you’re using to read this right now.
Unfortunately, since the Nazis would just switch up their game plan if they knew Enigma had been compromised, it meant that Turing and his colleagues at MI6 couldn’t stop every single Nazi plot even when they knew what was coming. This meant that a lot of difficult choices had to be made regarding how many Allied losses were acceptable without losing the war or tipping their hand. Perhaps even worse, Turing was a gay man back when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. Turns out that working in a top secret field is a lot more complicated for those who have secrets of their own.
When the war was over, Turing was eventually outed and charged with gross indecency. He took a plea bargain, agreeing to chemical castration by way of hormone therapy in exchange for staying out of prison. Two years later, Turing killed himself by way of an apple poisoned with cyanide. The death scene was left out of the movie, but there are a few ironic nods to it if you know what to look for.
By far the best thing about this movie is the script. The movie is loaded with fantastic dialogue exchanges that fly right off the page, the narration is very smartly utilized, and the flashbacks are utilized in such a way that they convey the necessary backstory while avoiding the usual pitfalls of cradle-to-grave biopics. Graham Moore did a fantastic job of adapting this material, certainly worthy of the prestigious Black List. Especially since his job basically consisted of making something new from old parts.
First of all, there’s the fact that this is a WWII film. We’re already long since drowning in WWII films. Hell, this is the third WWII film I’ve seen this year (after The Monuments Men and Fury). The period has been done. It’s been done to death at least a hundred times over. As much as I appreciate how this movie establishes the stakes of what’s going on and how important it is to break the code and win the war, this film can’t possibly show me anything I haven’t already seen before.
Secondly, the film makes some very intriguing statements about individuality. Specifically, there’s a fascinating connection made between thinking machines and homosexuality that I don’t dare spoil here for fear that I wouldn’t do it justice. There’s also a great moment in which Turing (played as a young boy by Alex Lawther) falls in love with cryptography upon the realization that to his socially-challenged perception, everyone around him is talking in code without even realizing it. Brilliant stuff. On the other hand, the film is considerably less subtle in its message of feminism, usually portrayed by way of Joan Clarke (Turing’s colleague, played by Keira Knightley). Also, characters repeatedly state that “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” It’s a clunky and preachy line that’s easily the biggest misstep in this otherwise sterling script.
But more importantly, this is 2014. Gay marriage was made legal in 19 states just this past year. If statements in favor of the LGBT community are still the least bit relevant or provocative, they probably won’t be for much longer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we’ve come so far, and it’s wonderful that we can hold Turing up as a hero for his accomplishments without condemning him for his sexuality. Still, the statement that Turing suffered too much for being gay stopped being a relevant idea some time ago. In fact, I’d say that it stopped being relevant a year ago to the day, when Queen Elizabeth II gave Turing a posthumous pardon.
Incidentally, the same goes for statements about feminism and mental illness. Do we really need another movie stating that women, gays, and those on the autistic spectrum are people too? In this day and age? I dunno, maybe I’m just more progressive than most, but these ideas seem so passe that it’s almost like coming out against black slavery. Big deal, right? Who cares?
Then we have the cast. Benedict Cumberbatch has been getting all manner of praise for this role, and of course he knocks it out of the park. For good reason. Because as I implied earlier, he’s Sherlock. Absolutely everything he does in this movie is a rerun of his breakout role. And it doesn’t stop with him, either.
Mark Strong is playing a stoic British secret agent. Kinda like he did in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Keira Knightley is playing a strong and smart independent woman who wants to break free from her parents’ expectations and make her way in a man’s world. Only this time, she’s not fighting any cursed pirates. Charles Dance plays some stodgy naval commander who hates Turing’s attitude and takes every opportunity to try and fire and/or arrest him. I don’t even know if Dance has played any other such characters, but the role is so boring and thankless that it’s clear he’s barely even trying.
But for me, the piece de resistance came from Matthew Goode. Sure, he plays the same smug and charming guy I’ve seen Goode play several times before, but then came one particular scene. Late in the second act, Turing and his coworkers are debating whether to save a passenger convoy that’s about to be attacked by Nazi U-boats, at the possible expense of letting the Germans know that their precious code had been broken. And who’s arguing that a few lives should be spared at the expense of continuing the war and letting untold millions more perish? It’s Adrian fucking Veidt. I know the irony will be lost on a lot of you, but for a Watchmen fan, that’s just priceless.
Getting back to the point, none of these actors are doing anything that we haven’t already seen them do umpteen times. None of them are putting in awards-worthy work here. On the other hand, that doesn’t necessarily make for a bad movie. Far from it, in fact. After all, when the actors are so far into their comfort zones and they’re given such crisp dialogue to work with, of course the results are going to be entertaining.
If The Imitation Game seems familiar, that’s because it’s made of so many old and worn-out parts put together into a new configuration. It’s fun to watch, and the subject is a man who’s long overdue for a bit of fanfare. Even so, it’s not among the year’s best, and it had the misfortune of coming out when its big social statements are right on the tail end of being relevant.
Still, it’s definitely a film worth watching, especially if you’re itching for more “Sherlock” between seasons.