Monday, January 12, 2015

Movie Review: The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game is a movie that does not quite know what it wants to be.  You can hunt down the specifics of this film on-line in almost as short a time as it would take you to read any description I could give so I'll keep the preliminaries short. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, among others, and retells the story of Alan Turing, a path-breaking scientist that the film credits with devising the machine that allowed the allies to "break" the Nazi Enigma code machine, learn about Nazi movements during WW II, and ultimately shorten (if not actually win) the war itself.  My son suggested that this movie is actually two films in one and he might be right. Or, it might  even be more than that.

When my wife and I went to see The Imitation Game, the theatre was packed. In fact, I don't think I'd seen a theatre that full for a long time. The audience seemed to enjoy the film and I did too. I thought it was well acted, that the cinematography was good, and that plot developed at the right pace. In short, I had a good evening and didn't mind paying whatever it is we pay now for two tickets, popcorn and pops. As time has gone by, however, I've been rethinking my original assessment. My son's critique seemed, in fact, generous. The Imitation Game is a film that is trying to cross a number of genres and, ultimately, does not succeed. The end result is a film that lacks an identity, that does not know precisely what it is or is supposed to be and so leaves viewers appreciating certain elements of it (Cumberbatch's acting, say, or Knightley's dialogue), but ultimately having a hard time tying its different parts together.

I'd like to argue that the indeterminacy of the film is the result of (a) the complexity of Turing's life (one identity for this film is that of bio-pic), or (b) the complexity of its directors who are looking to realize multiple intertwining plot lines to show the complexities of life and character. But, I actually don't think this is the case. If you don't know who Turing is, you can find some information here. Suffice it to say, he played an important role in military history (as the quick overview above suggests). Suffice it, also, to say that he was one bright guy and had some quirks. Suffice it to say that he was gay and suffered for it, being charged and found guilty of gross indecency, the punishment for which was likely a contributing factor in his suicide. Turing is an individual about whom we should know more. In addition to his contributions to the allied victory in World War II, he played an important role in the development of the computer. His life is precisely the type of life that would make for a good bio-pic.

The problem with The Imitation Game is that it tries to do too much. The movie spans a broad range of different genres. It is a spy film, a war movie, the story of a bullied child grappling with his homosexuality, the story of a smart awkward man who lacks any social grace or common sense, who has been allowed to hide behind his intelligence by those closest to  him in ways that create social problems for him. For me, the movie would have been really good if it had been any one of these things. I would, for instance, have liked to watch a real bio-pic that set Turing in his context, paid more attention to the bullying he suffered, potentially the fear of being discovered, his rendezvous with other gay men, the type of community in which they lived or did not live, the range of views of those in the straight community and how he interacted with different straights. Much is made, for instance, in the film of a young woman code breaker (Joan Clarke) who is not married at 25. In the film, her parents seem to think this a horrible problem. What about Turing? How did others react to his bachelor status? In other words, the war could have been used as a backdrop to explore a particularly important topic through the life of an important man.

Likewise, the film could have been a war movie, perhaps with spy overtones. We don't necessarily need another war movie. They are a dime a dozen, but this genre might have used the development of MI 6, counter espionage, and the like to sketch out the importance of espionage for modern warfare. This would have moved the film away from Turing, to be sure, but it would have been a good film, even if more liberties with history likely would have needed to be taken.

Likewise, the film could have focused more broadly on gender relations and sexuality. Joan Clarke might have moved to the forefront in such a discussion and there are clear overtones in the film (frequenting pubs and whatnot to meet members of the opposite sex). Such an approach could have drawn more on Turing's life, but would have had to involve the deeper development of more characters, most of who are rather one-sided stand-ins -- symbols as it were -- for social views or social types.

Personally, I would have opted for the first option, a real bio-pic of Turing. The defense against what I am saying and in favour of the film is that the diversity and complexity were necessary because Turing lived a diverse and complex life in a difficult time. To reduce this difficulty and complexity to a bio-pic would have limited, one might say, the accuracy of the film. I'd normally be  tempted to say "fair enough" but the film already contains a number of problems with the facts (at least as historians know them) that make it less than historically accurate. It is, in other words, a film and not documentary. So, this defense does not really fly. What made the film's failure to address Turing in more detail all the problematic for me is its clumsy efforts to make a political statement that occur right at the end of the film (or the chronological beginning, since the film is shown largely as flashback). As the film concludes screen texts explains Turing's importance, his arrest, the number of gay men arrested for "gross indecency" and the results -- Turing's suicide -- that followed from this. He has been, of course, posthumously pardoned, which is only right. But, as a film, I was left wondering why, after spending a great deal of the film ignoring the politics of sexual orientation, the film-makers decided to try to end on a political note.

Even more problematic to me is the fact that that political note is so ... well ... banal. Yes, we know that criminalizing homosexuality was a gross injustice that had serious human consequences. And, if we don't know that, a few lines of text at the end of a film aren't going to convince one. It is almost as if, having ended the film with the success of breaking Enigma, the film-makers decided that some sort of political statement was in order for their own political reasons. It is as if they felt that they could not just make a film about Turing and then leave matters there, letting the audience decide about the injustice of criminalizing a person who could rightly be considered a hero or waiting for just about forever to redress the wrong. The political statements, in other words, made at the end of the film sat poorly with the rest of the film and seemed almost gratuitous, as if the film-makers felt the need to establish their own progressive politics as opposed to addressing the life and legacy of the Turing and his colleagues.

I still like this film. I still think it is worth seeing, but I do hope someone else makes another film about Turing in the future that does a better job than this one. 
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