In case the name isn’t familiar, the central figure of The Imitation Game, Alan Turing, was a clandestine codebreaking hero of World War II. He went on to work at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory, where he created one of the first designs for the ACE, a stored-program computer, and he is now widely considered the father of the modern computer as well as a pioneer in artificial intelligence.
Turing’s career was effectively cut short by his arrest and conviction for “gross indecency”—that is, for simply being gay—like Oscar Wilde half a century before. To avoid prison, Turing was forced to undergo chemical castration, which he endured for a year, but the end result was his suicide by cyanide poisoning in 1954 at age 41. In 1967 homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain, and in 2009—as the result of an online petition signed by thousands (including, I am proud to say, me)—Turing received a posthumous apology from Prime Minister Gordon Brown on behalf of Great Britain.
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch—who has played a host of other geniuses, including Vincent van Gogh, Sherlock Holmes, Robert Oppenheimer, and Stephen Hawking—was an obvious choice to channel Turing. He was the man for the job—or rather men, secret men whom Cumberbatch portrays like a set of Matryoshkas, the Russian nesting dolls.
Thus, Cumberbatch-as-Turing becomes the clandestine human machine who joins England’s Bletchley Park team of mathematicians to break the Nazis’ fiendishly ever-changing Enigma code. Again, he is the once-bullied schoolchild who dares to go over the heads of superiors to Churchill himself and so become head of the Bletchley team. Yet again, he is the visionary inventor who devises the calculating machine that succeeds where mere mortals could not.
And (not finally, but not to belabor the point) he is the vulnerably closeted, emotive being who, although attracted to men, becomes engaged to a woman colleague (well played by Keira Knightley). He loves her for her mind, but comes to realize that living that lie would be the kind of imitation game—of playing at being human—that he does not wish to play.
Even telling this much does not give away the whole. Turing’s life is long overdue to be celebrated—in part because the cryptographic secrets he uncovered were kept for decades beyond the Nazi defeat. But the time has come to look at this very important life, and to understand all that we can of being human. The Imitation Game is an essential step in that direction.
Rating: Four wooden nickels (out of four)