A Popular Fantasy About a Smart Person

I actually thought it was a pretty good movie, but in her review of The Imitation Game: A Smart Person’s Fantasy, Emma Green at The Atlantic encourages the reader to confound fantasy and reality. The creators of a movie, presented as a fictionalized account, may perhaps legitimately change the story for dramatic effect but for a reviewer of a historical drama to talk of the drama without clearly distinguishing it from the history is inexcusable. Green does admit the neglect of prior Polish work on decoding earlier versions of ‘Enigma’ as an instance of how “(t)he filmmakers tweaked some of the details”, and her subsequent discussion could be defended as summarising the plot of the movie rather than the historical facts, but the distinction is nowhere near clear enough. In particular the entire premise of a lone misunderstood  genius is contrary to the facts. Turing was always fully accepted as a central part of a team whose work was never threatened with withdrawal of support and the only person who really had to struggle against skepticism is Tommy Flowers who persisted against some resistance (though not from Turing) with the idea of substituting electronic for electromechanical switching in the construction of a new ‘Colossus’ to replace the ‘Bombe’ computing machine.

In what is an extreme anomaly relative to most of my on-line experience, most of the comments (including some that reeked of homophobia) were well worth reading and I learned a lot from many of them (including some of the nasty ones).

As for the characterization of Turing, although I enjoyed the movie I think in retrospect that I am disappointed in Cumberbatch. After seeing ‘August: Osage County’ I had come to expect him to be one of those rare actors (like Kevin Cline) who can disappear into a role so that you don’t immediately know it’s the same guy acting. But here he seems to be just replaying his ‘Sherlock’ character without trying to pick up on the aspects that make Turing completely different. Perhaps he should have taken some lessons from the kid who played him as a child and I think may have played it much closer to the mark!

Meanwhile the Atlantic also puts a foot on the other side of the fence by having Kevin O’Keefe bleating about a false happy ending – which is pretty far from how I would characterize the final scene where, alone and sickened by meds Turing turns  to his computer, named “Christopher” after his dead first love, as the only “person” in his life he seems to have any faith in or connection with, and the screen fades to a text-over account of his subsequent suicide. This too is of course another bit of dramatic licence as Turing apparently had an active social life, including sex on various holidays abroad, in the year that he lived after concluding  the hormone treatment. (This is not to deny that the hormone treatment may have induced ongoing depression or unrecorded sexual problems, and/or that the prevailing antipathy and distrust towards homosexuals may have driven him to suicide – if that is indeed how he died.)


P.S. This ‘Slate’ article gives a lot more detail about the extent to which the movie respects or distorts the facts.

And see also this ‘History vs Hollywood’ comparison of the movie with the actual historical record.


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