‘The Imitation Game’ Distorts Alan Turing‘s Legacy
Filmmakers rewrote history to bait Oscars and create drama
The framing device in The Imitation Game is an act of treason.
That’s not a hyperbolic dig at a bad movie, but a simple truth. The hot, new Oscar-nominated biopic about Alan Turing—brilliant mathematician, hero of World War II and father of computer science—opens and closes with him committing treason.
It’s 1951 and someone has broken into Turing’s home. The police investigate and Turing blows them off. He doesn’t want more men ruining his privacy. He has important research to do.
The detective in charge pursues the case, anyway. He’s convinced the grumpy college professor is a Soviet spy. The truth is that Turing is gay and the burglar was his lover’s friend.
The detective discovers this and brings Turing in for questioning. Homosexuality was a crime in England until 1967.
During the interrogation, Turing reveals he worked at Bletchley Park during World War II. He confesses that he broke the Enigma code—the famous cipher used by the Nazis—and helped end the war early.
It’s a story that was still classified at the time, and contained information Britain didn’t want to get out. Although the war was over, much of the world anticipated another conflict erupting, this time between the West and Russia.
The filmmakers want the audience to feel that Turing has been hiding all his life, and is now revealing his true self. He was a man who imitated normal behavior but never understood it. As a trope, this interrogation scene serves as a confession framing the story of his life.
But revealing his war record is treason, a crime Turing never committed. Nor was he ashamed of—or afraid—to reveal his sexuality.
It was an open secret. When questioned by the police, he readily admitted the fact because he felt it would soon no longer be a crime.
These are just two of the many ways The Imitation Game screws up one of the greatest stories of World War II.
Film adaptations of a life will always change facts and cut out complicated information. Such is the nature of movies—bio pics are themselves condensed and entertaining versions of a subject’s life.
These films work best when they focus on one aspect of a famous life and capture that essence.
Walk the Line works because it’s the love story of Johnny Cash and June Carter as told through their music. Raging Bull works because director Martin Scorsese juxtaposed Jake LaMotta’s control in the ring against his instability outside of it. Amadeus works because the audience watches a genius through the eyes of a jealous rival.
The Imitation Game doesn’t work. The filmmakers want audiences to believe a myth about Turing that isn’t true—that he was a misunderstood genius who didn’t understand human relations and single-handedly broke the enigma code.
In the film, Turing is rude to everyone around him. “You wouldn’t understand,” is his catch phrase. One telling scene consists largely of a female friend explaining the basics of courtship to him in bar.
It’s true that Turing was a genius, but The Imitation Game would have audiences believe he was the kind of asshole-misfit genius only found in Hollywood films. The real-life Turing was affable, possessed a mischievous sense of humor and had many friends at Bletchley Park.
He did enjoy working alone and would—at times—talk over people, but most people found him charming.
The movie also depicts Turing as the driving force behind cracking the Enigma code. In this depiction, he built the computer that decoded it, and pulled his fellow cryptographers kicking and screaming to the answers.
In truth, Turing had great help from the hundreds of other scientists working to break the Nazi code. He did pioneer many code-cracking techniques, but couldn’t have accomplished so much without the help of his co-workers.
Turing based the bombe—his code-breaking computer—on an existing Polish design. He constructed the machine alongside Gordon Welchman—a mathematician not even mentioned in the film.
The real Turing was a brilliant, affable man with many friends and a charming personality. The Imitation Game’s Turing doesn’t understand an invitation to lunch from his coworkers.
The filmmakers took a complicated and interesting story about cryptography and the birth of computer science and turned it into A Beautiful Mind set during World War II.