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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.


Comments:

There's another version of Turing's story. CODEBREAKER is an award-winning drama documentary about Alan Turing's life and legacy. It's a much more accurate telling of Turing's story than THE IMITATION GAME. You can check it out on Netflix and iTunes.

Patrick Sammon, Fri, 16 Jan 2015 15:21:48 -0500

I wasn't very impressed with Codebreaker. I didn't find the actor portraying Turing to be very convincing, and as I pointed out in my previous blog entry, CodeBreaker gets the math wrong.

A documentary like Codebreaker has an even greater responsibility than a fictional film to get things correct, and if you're making a documentary about a mathematician and you can't even get the math right, what's the point? — Charles

I still haven't seen the movie, but after reading that fantastic piece by the Polish cryptographer, I've been especially grated by that highlight clip they show on the shows, in which a character says "Everyone agrees it is impossible! No one has made any progress -- not the French, not the Americans, no one!" and Cumberbatch/Turing says "Well, then give it to me and I'll prove it one way or the other." (or somesuch.)

— Larry O'Brien, Fri, 16 Jan 2015 15:51:29 -0500

“An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.” — Gandhi

Charles, you are gifted in making difficult and/or otherwise dull topics fun and accessible.

It's unfortunate writers in Hollywood don't seem to have such talents, but they sure know how to sensationalize.

Just don't forget that you're still influencing the world one reader at a time. By writing about the inaccuracies of this movie you've done your part in the fight against ignorance :)

— Jordan, Sun, 25 Jan 2015 12:28:45 -0500

Dear Mr Petzold,

I'm really fond of your books, those Windows-related as a seasoned Win programmer, as well as (if not more of) the "Annotated Turing" book. I've been put through "the Turing paper" at the university of course, but it was your book that really made me appreciate its beauty and power, as well as being able to see the human being and the history behind it.

I wholeheartedly agree with your claims regarding the movie. But the story goes even deeper and is even more unpleasant for the filmmakers in charge. In order to elevate the importance of Turing's work (at least the part that is shown in the movie), it is said in the movie that they had to start the work from scratch, and the only thing that they have is an Enigma device "provided by Polish intelligence". This is a gross inadequacy, to say the least. I remember that you've given the credit to the Polish precursors of Bletchley Park work, but let me just point out the most important things for the sake of discussion and spreading the facts (since the movie completely failed to do so).

Three Polish mathematicians: Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski, working in the Polish Cipher Bureau were the first to not only actually uncipher Enigma messages, but also, due to their understanding of the nature of the code, they were able to recreate the Enigma device. To my knowledge, that duplicate was actually the device that was available at Bletchley Park. Turing's work on his device was actually an extension of Rejewski's "bomb" - the movie neglects it. They also show people working on big rectangular sheets of film with little square markings, but nothing is said that they're in fact so-called Zygalski's sheets, an alternative method (also mathematical in nature), invented by the Polish Cipher Bureau member, enabling recreation of Enigma's settings for the day. There is a detailed account for the whole backstory of Polish mathematicians that one can read here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/witold-sobkaw/imitation-game_b_6499728.html

I truly regret that this movie, not so bad after all, cripples the history in such a way. It was a great opportunity not only to show a person, but also a real history behind all the doings. Instead we were given another standard Cumberbatchy Sherlock-like appearance and a story instead of the history. Pity.

Thank you very much for your work. Best wishes.

Aleksander, Tue, 3 Feb 2015 03:35:36 -0500

Thanks! — Charles

Charles,

You're comments on how BC gets Turing's personality wrong struck a cord. Is there any recorded oral histories of Turing's associates that describe what he was like?

It would seem to me that, like the oral histories being recorded of WWII vets before they all die out, a series of interviews with those that knew Turing would be quite valuable going forward.

— Doug Boling, Wed, 25 Feb 2015 16:51:16 -0500


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