Charles Petzold

Pushback on “The Imitation Game”

January 16, 2015

The current issue of The New York Review of Books includes a review of The Imitation Game by Christian Caryl that pretty much sums up my reservations about the many historical inaccuracies of this movie. Unfortunately, the online version of the review “Saving Alan Turing From His Friends” is restricted to subscribers but an abridgement posted a couple weeks ago, “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing”, is still available. My recent blog entry “The Imitation Game” and Alan Turing's Real Contribution to Computing discusses the mangling of the mathematics in the movie.

Awareness of the many problems with The Imitation Game is growing: The Wikipedia article on the movie has progressively accumulated a long list of the historical inaccuracies of the events and personalities. The footnoted citations in this article now constitute a good summary of the pushback against the movie.

Everyone expects Hollywood movies "based on real events" to take a few liberties with the facts. But the makers of The Imitation Game have chosen to estrange themselves from the truth to such a degree as to render the result a complete (albeit well made) travesty.

Film is a collaborative medium, so it's difficult to determine if the distortions of Alan Turing's life are the fault of the screenwriter Graham Moore, the director Morten Tyldum, or even the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. But it's easy to imagine how this might have happened:

Making a movie about a mathematician is hard. Most of what a mathematician does involves staring into space for long periods of time and then scratching incomprehensible marks on paper. Only when a mathematician develops a mental illness (as in A Beautiful Mind or Pi) does the story get cinematically interesting.

So of course a movie like The Imitation Game must focus on more exciting events, and particularly Alan Turing's stint at Bletchley Park. Yet even here, the actual history at first does not sound sufficiently dramatic. For example, in 1938, Alan Turing was invited to take a course at the Government Code and Cypher School (GC & CS) headquarters. A year later, after the GC & CS had purchased a large estate called Bletchley Park, Turing was recruited to join the many others working there.

Instead, the movie portrays the beginning of Turing's stint at Bletchley Park with Turing bullying Alistair Denniston into hiring him. But that scene mandates a particular personality type — arrogant, abrasive, oblivious of social norms, and clearly somewhere on the autism spectrum. Fortunately for someone who doesn't know how to write dialog except when people are in conflict, this type of character is ideal.

The bonus is that there's already a model for such a personality type familiar to the millions of viewers of The Big Bang Theory. Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing is Sheldon Cooper without the giggles. It's the stereotype of the lone genius battling the pig-headed stupidity of everyone around him.

That would be fine if it accurately represented Turing's personality. But all the evidence indicates that it does not. The Alan Turing who emerges from Andrew Hodges' classic biography Alan Turing: The Enigma is a shy, sensitive, disheveled soul. Does a character of that sort make a movie about Turing impossible? Not at all. One need only see Derek Jacobi in the movie made of Hugh Whitemore's 1986 play Breaking the Code. Although Jacobi was a bit old for the part, his Turing is much closer to the historical record but a polar opposite to Cumberbatch's portrayal. (The movie is available on YouTube but I fear it's not on there legally.)

Interestingly, many of the experts on Turing's life and work are keeping quiet about The Imitation Game or inexplicably praising it, apparently under the assumption that we should be so grateful that Hollywood has taken notice of one of our heroes that we must now keep mum about the gross distortions.

I don't think that's right. The Imitation Game dishonors the many thousands of other people who worked at Bletchley Park, as well as Alan Turing himself. For many people now, when they hear the name of Alan Turing they will visualize Benedict Cumberbatch being a belligerant asshole. That's clearly unacceptable.