The Imitation Game  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Imitation Game is a 2014 historical thriller film directed by Morten Tyldum, with a screenplay by Graham Moore loosely based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges (previously adapted as the stageplay and BBC drama Breaking the Code). It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as real life British cryptanalyst Alan Turing, who in the film is hired to decrypt German intelligence codes for the British government during World War II.

The LGBT civil rights advocacy and political lobbying organisation the Human Rights Campaign honoured The Imitation Game for bringing Turing's legacy to a wider audience. However, the film was criticised for its inaccurate portrayal of historical events and Turing's character and relationships.

The film's title refers to Turing's proposed test of the same name, which he discussed in his 1950 paper on artificial intelligence entitled "Computing Machinery and Intelligence". The paper opens: "I propose to consider the question, 'Can machines think?' This should begin with definitions of the meaning of the terms 'machine' and 'think'."

Plot

The story is nonlinear, beginning in 1951 as two policemen, Nock and Staehl, investigate the mathematician Alan Turing after an apparent break-in at his home. Turing's suspicious behaviour and lack of war records triggers Nock's suspicion that he might be a Soviet spy. During his interrogation by Nock, Turing tells of his time working at Bletchley Park.

Attention then switches to 1927, when the young Turing is unhappy and bullied at boarding school. He develops a friendship with Christopher Morcom, who sparks his interest in cryptography, and develops romantic feelings for him. Before Turing can confess his love, Christopher dies unexpectedly from bovine tuberculosis.

When Britain declares war on Germany in 1939, Turing travels to Bletchley Park, where, under the direction of Commander Alastair Denniston, he joins the cryptography team of Hugh Alexander, John Cairncross, Peter Hilton, Keith Furman, and Charles Richards. The team are trying to break the ciphers created by the Enigma machine, which the Nazis use to provide security for their wireless messages.

Turing is difficult to work with and considers his colleagues inferior; he works alone to design a machine to decipher Enigma. After Denniston refuses to fund construction of the machine, Turing writes to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who puts him in charge of the team and funds the machine. Turing fires Furman and Richards and places a difficult crossword in newspapers to find replacements. Joan Clarke, a Cambridge graduate, surpasses Turing’s test, but her parents will not allow her to work with the male cryptographers. Turing arranges for her to live and work with the female clerks who intercept the messages and shares his plans with her.

Turing’s machine, which he names Christopher, is constructed but cannot determine the Enigma settings before the Germans reset the Enigma encryption each day. Denniston orders it destroyed and Turing fired, but the other cryptographers threaten to leave if he goes. After Clarke plans to leave on the wishes of her parents, Turing proposes marriage, which she accepts. During their reception, Turing confirms his homosexuality to Cairncross, who warns him to keep it secret. After overhearing a conversation with a clerk about messages she receives, Turing has an epiphany, realising he can program the machine to decode words he already knows exist in certain messages. After he recalibrates the machine, it quickly decodes a message and the cryptographers celebrate; however, Turing realises they cannot act on every decoded message or the Germans will realise Enigma has been broken.

Turing discovers that Cairncross is a Soviet spy. When Turing confronts him, Cairncross argues that the Soviets are allies working for the same goals and threatens to disclose Turing’s homosexuality if his role as an agent is revealed. When the MI6 agent Stewart Menzies appears to threaten Clarke, Turing reveals that Cairncross is a spy. Menzies reveals that he knew this already and planted Cairncross among them in order to leak messages to the Soviets for British benefit. Fearing for her safety, Turing tells Clarke to leave Bletchley Park, revealing that he is homosexual and lying about never having cared for her. After the war, Menzies tells the cryptographers to destroy their work and that they can never see one another again or share what they have done.

In the 1950s Turing is convicted of indecency and, in lieu of a jail sentence, undergoes chemical castration so he can continue his work. Clarke visits him in his home and witnesses his physical and mental deterioration. She reminds him that his work saved lives and uses the phrase Christopher used of Turing and Turing once used of her: "Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine."




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