7 Deep Thoughts About 'The Imitation Game'
On historical accuracy, apples, gay persecution, and the unmade DiCaprio version of this movie.
Benedict Cumberbatch and The Imitation Game were made for each other. It was a movie that came along just as the rising star needed a prestige picture attached to his name, and Cumberbatch came along just as the movie was searching for a star capable of playing an eccentric genius with the right mix of awkwardness and charisma. In director Morten Tyldum's hands, The Imitation Game has won heaps of praise, a Best Picture nomination, and a Best Actor nomination for Cumberbatch, but it's a movie that raises nearly as many questions as it answers. Let's dig into some thoughts we had about the movie. [SPOILERS AHEAD!]
#1. Let's Just All Agree This Is Not Historically Accurate
Historical accuracy has been a huge talking point in this year's Oscar race, and The Imitation Game is not immune to the controversy. Selma, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, Foxcatcher, and even Big Eyes have faced similar scrutiny, which raises the question: How much does historical accuracy in drama matter? But before we dig into that question a little deeper, here are a few bullet points on some of the many things that were dramatized in The Imitation Game. These are just the tip of the iceberg.
• Joan Clarke was a working mathematician when she was recruited to the Enigma project. In the movie they found her through a crossword puzzle contest. This interestingly blends two pieces of reality into one piece of fiction. First: Women were not readily accepted into the upper echelons of mathematics at the time. Second: All the Bletchley Park cryptographers were required to be able to solve the Telegraph crossword puzzle in six minutes.
• Despite being characterized as awkward and unfriendly, Alan Turing was well-liked by his fellow code-breakers and seen to have a good sense of humor. The movie seems to subscribe to the oft-repeated idea that Turing might have fallen somewhere on the Autism/Asperger's scale. But given his level of insight into himself and others, that's seen as unlikely.
• Commander Alastair Denniston (played by the ever menacing Charles Dance) was supportive of the code-breakers' work on a machine that could crack the Enigma. And Turing was never under threat of being fired or suspected of being a spy.
• The frame story, with Turing spilling everything to a police detective, is perhaps the most obvious dramatization. This would have actually been treason if it actually happened.
• The Bletchley Park team never performed the "blood soaked calculus" of determining which intercepted German intelligence to act upon, and which to allow to happen. Also, none of them had family about to be killed by a German U-boat at the moment they cracked the Enigma. Yes, someone did perform said bloody calculus, they were just much higher up.
#2. But How Much Does Accuracy Matter?
How much does historical accuracy matter in our movies? It's one of the biggest Oscar questions of the year, and I've been going back and forth on this according to the latest news. Some days I think we should just let movies do whatever they do and ignore the fact-checking urges we have. Other days I think it should literally be outlawed to make movies about historical figures because there's no way to keep it accurate.
Here's my take: No one gets a pass, but the spirit matters, too. It's not okay to make a movie about real people and grossly mischaracterize them. It's also wrong-headed to expect a two-hour movie to accurately relate events that students often spend entire semesters studying. So there's a mixture of responsibilities. The filmmaker has a responsibility to accurately represent the people in the movie. The producers have a responsibility to hold those filmmakers to high standards, and the audience has a responsibility to not consider any one movie the sole authority on an historical subject.
Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday wrote a piece on this subject regarding the reaction to Selma, but it's just as applicable to any number of historical movies. She writes: "If accuracy has become a formal element of historical dramas, then the ensuing fact-checks have become just as integral a part of how we view them. That means it’s incumbent on audiences to engage in a mode of spectatorship that, rather than decide who’s right, can listen to and respect expert critiques, and still open themselves up to a piece of filmed entertainment that speaks to less literal, more universal truths."
#3. The Legend of Alan Turing's Apple
While the movie doesn't show it, Alan Turing killed himself by eating an apple he loaded with cyanide. He took a big bite, laid down in his bed and died in relative obscurity. This was after going through the chemical castration process and enduring side effects that included growing breasts. One of Turing's favorite movies was Snow White, which has led biographers to assign special importance to his choosing death by poisoned apple.
Fast forward a few decades later when, legend has it, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created the Apple logo as a tribute to Turing. The details just match up so perfectly. Not only does the apple have the single bite out of it, but it was also originally rainbow striped, which has been interpreted as being in recognition of Turing's sexual orientation. Sadly, the logo's designer has a far less poetic explanation. "I designed it with a bite for scale, so people get that it was an apple not a cherry," designer Rob Janoff told CreativeBits in 2009. If the story just sounds too good not to be true, well Jobs never officially disavowed it.
#4. Pardon the Other 49,000 Persecuted Gay Men
Alan Turing's conviction for "gross indecency" is widely thought to have led directly to his suicide two years later. In 2009, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology from the British government for "the appalling way" Turing was treated. That apology led to more action, and in 2013, after editorials, petitions, celebrity statements, and a general groundswell of public opinion, Queen Elizabeth II issued a rare royal pardon, officially expunging Turing's conviction. But it doesn't stop there.
Turing wasn't the only gay man whose life was ruined by England's laws against homosexuality. In fact, some of them are still alive. After Turing was pardoned, activists capitalized on that momentum by starting a petition to pardon the other 49,000 men convicted under those "gross indecency" laws. If the movie has inspired you, you can sign the petition at pardon49k.org.
Here's Benedict Cumberbatch's take on the matter: "Alan Turing was not only prosecuted, but quite arguably persuaded to end his own life early, by a society who called him a criminal for simply seeking out the love he deserved, as all human beings do. Sixty years later, that same government claimed to 'forgive' him by pardoning him. I find this deplorable, because Turing's actions did not warrant forgiveness — theirs did — and the 49,000 other prosecuted men deserve the same."
#5. What If Leonardo DiCaprio Had Played Turing?
When the Weinstein Co. first acquired the rights to adapt Andrew Hodges' Turing biography, Leonardo DiCaprio was attached to star. Let's try not to laugh and take a moment to consider what this movie might have been like if that had happened. First, it's not that crazy. It would have made more sense than J. Edgar, and he wouldn't have had to wear all that makeup. That said, there's no way he could have been as good as Cumberbatch. People would have accused DiCaprio, perhaps rightly, of trying too hard for that elusive Oscar. After playing Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover, Leo would be pigeon-holing himself. I don't doubt his performance here would have been adequate, but I have a hard time believing it would have been anywhere near as effective as Cumberbatch's.
#6. Imitation Game > Theory of Everything, But Redmayne > Cumberbatch
The near simultaneous release of The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything is like the Oscar version of that time Deep Impact and Armageddon both hit theaters in the summer of 1998. They're so similar. Both are biopics covering ground-breaking British scientists. And both are tragic and affecting. Both star charismatic British actors in roles that have found both nominated for Oscars. And the movies themselves are both up for Best Picture. Also, both are very by-the-numbers kinds of movies. Neither is trying to break new ground or challenge the conventions of the prestige biopic. For everything they both get right, they're actually both kind of stodgy. But if we're going to declare a winner in this little dual, the edge definitely goes to The Imitation Game which wisely limits its story mostly to the years Turing spent at Bletchley Park. By comparison, The Theory of Everything stretches itself thin trying to hit every major beat in Hawking's career. And when biopics spread themselves thin, they become almost comically predictable.
That said, Eddie Redmayne is better than Cumberbatch. Yes, he's taking on a more sympathetic Oscar-baity task in playing someone with a degenerative disease that lends itself so easily to caricature. But his accomplishment is in not slipping into caricature. He walks a thin line impressively, outdoing the also impressive Cumberbatch, and possibly earning an Oscar in the process.
#7. Keira Knightley Finally Earns Some Respect
For years Keira Knightley has been plugging away without ever really landing on the role that would earn her the respect she deserves. What is it that makes people not take her seriously? Is she too pretty? Too thin? Sadly, I don't think that's far from the mark. It's vindicating to see her finally win a part that once-and-for-all proves her abilities. It would have been a tall order for any actress to hold her own across from Benedict Cumberbatch, but Knightley steals her share of scenes without breaking her reserved character. She won't win the Oscar. Patricia Arquette is just too heavily favored for her role in Boyhood. But she's definitely won some respect.