Last week I finally saw The Imitation Game, the movie with Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.
OK, so for those who haven’t yet seen it: should you? Here’s my one paragraph summary: imagine that you told the story of Alan Turing—one of the greatest triumphs and tragedies of human history, needing no embellishment whatsoever—to someone who only sort-of understood it, and who filled in the gaps with weird fabrications and Hollywood clichés. And imagine that person retold the story to a second person, who understood even less, and that that person retold it to a third, who understood least of all, but who was charged with making the movie that would bring Turing’s story before the largest audience it’s ever had. And yet, imagine that enough of the enormity of the original story made it through this noisy channel, that the final product was still pretty good. (Except, imagine how much better it could’ve been!)
The fabrications were especially frustrating to me, because we know it’s possible to bring Alan Turing’s story to life in a way that fully honors the true science and history. We know that, because Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play Breaking the Code did it. The producers of The Imitation Game would’ve done better just to junk their script, and remake Breaking the Code into a Hollywood blockbuster. (Note that there is a 1996 BBC adaptation of Breaking the Code, with Derek Jacobi as Turing.)
Anyway, the movie focuses mostly on Turing’s codebreaking work at Bletchley Park, but also jumps around in time to his childhood at Sherborne School, and to his arrest for “homosexual indecency” and its aftermath. Turing’s two world-changing papers—On Computable Numbers and Computing Machinery and Intelligence—are both mentioned, though strangely, his paper about computing zeroes of the Riemann zeta function is entirely overlooked.
Here are my miscellaneous comments:
- The boastful, trash-talking, humor-impaired badass-nerd of the movie seems a lot closer to The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper, or to some other Hollywood concept of “why smart people are so annoying,” than to the historical Alan Turing. (At least in Sheldon’s case, the archetype is used for laughs, not drama or veracity.) As portrayed in the definitive biography (Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma), Turing was eccentric, sure, and fiercely individualistic (e.g., holding up his pants with pieces of string), but he didn’t get off on insulting the intelligence of the people around him.
- In the movie, Turing is pretty much singlehandedly responsible for designing, building, and operating the Bombes (the codebreaking machines), which he does over the strenuous objections of his superiors. This, of course, is absurd: Bletchley employed about 10,000 people at its height. Turing may have been the single most important cog in the operation, but he was still a cog. And by November 1942, the operation was already running smoothly enough that Turing could set sail for the US (in waters that were now much safer, thanks to Bletchley!), to consult on other cryptographic projects at Bell Labs.
- But perhaps the movie’s zaniest conceit is that Turing was also in charge of deciding what to do with Bletchley’s intelligence (!). In the movie, it falls to him, not the military, to decide which ship convoys will be saved, and which sacrificed to prevent spilling Bletchley’s secret. If that had any historicity to it, it would surely be the most military and political power ever entrusted to a mathematician (update: see the comments section for potential counterexamples).
- It’s true that Turing (along with three other codebreakers) wrote a letter directly to Winston Churchill, pleading for more funding for Bletchley Park—and that Churchill saw the letter, and ordered “Action this day! Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority.” However, the letter was not a power play to elevate Turing over Hugh Alexander and his other colleagues: in fact, Alexander co-signed the letter. More broadly, the fierce infighting between Turing and everyone else at Bletchley Park, central to the movie’s plot, seems to have been almost entirely invented for dramatic purposes.
- The movie actually deserves a lot of credit for getting right that the major technical problem of Bletchley Park was how to get the Bombes to search through keys fast enough—and that speeding things up is where Turing made a central contribution. As a result, The Imitation Game might be the first Hollywood movie ever made whose plot revolves around computational efficiency. (Counterexamples, anyone?) Unfortunately, the movie presents Turing’s great insight as being that one can speed up the search by guessing common phrases, like “HEIL HITLER,” that are likely to be in the plaintext. That was, I believe, obvious to everyone from the beginning.
- Turing never built a computer in his own home, and he never named a computer “Christopher,” after his childhood crush Christopher Morcom. (On the other hand, Christopher Morcom existed, and his early death from tuberculosis really did devastate Turing, sending him into morbid-yet-prescient ruminations about whether a mind could exist separately from a brain.)
- I found it ironic that The Imitation Game, produced in 2014, is far more squeamish about on-screen homosexuality than Breaking the Code, produced in 1986. Turing talks about being gay (which is an improvement over 2001’s Enigma, which made Turing straight!), but is never shown embracing another man. However, the more important problem is that the movie botches the story of the burglary of Turing’s house (i.e., the event that led to Turing’s arrest and conviction for homosexual indecency), omitting the role of Turing’s own naiveté in revealing his homosexuality to the police, and substituting some cloak-and-dagger spy stuff. Once again, Breaking the Code handled this perfectly.
- In one scene, Euler is pronounced “Yooler.”
For more, see an excellent piece in Slate, How Accurate Is The Imitation Game?. And for other science bloggers’ reactions, see this review by Christos Papadimitriou (which I thought was extremely kind, though it focuses more on Turing himself than on the movie), this reaction by Peter Woit, which largely echoes mine, and this by Clifford Johnson.