The Imitation Game
directed by morten tyldum, starring benedict cumberbadger, keira knightley
4 out of 5 cummerbunds, er, no, cucumbers...no wait...bumblebatches. Yeah. Nailed it.
You’d think we’d be tired of world war 2 movies by now. Any sane moviegoing public would’ve picketed hollywood blvd after saving private ryan. ‘Down with bullets, down with guns, we want whoopi, as a nun!’ LA’s grid would lock and the city’d fall to its knees as furious audience members stormed the studios sniffing high and low for tom hanks, trailing a noose made of braided twizzlers. ‘If I have to watch another cinematic clash of good vs evil on the beaches of normandy, I’ll claw my own eyes out,’ declares one man as news cameras look on in horror.
But then benedict camerabattle and keira knightley would never have suited up for the best tortured mathematician story since john nash. Every ww2 story is going to drag courage into the frame, but the imitation game is different [man slowly lowers fingernails from eyes, breathing a sigh of relief]. It takes place more among bookshelves than beaches, more scratch paper than shells. And unlike the standard recipe (1 cup of triumph, 2 tbsp patriotism, a pinch of nationalism, add tragedy to taste), alan turing’s story is powerful precisely because it’s detached from the theater of war and stays close to his intimate relationships. Its tragedy is simple and personal, as shown through an interesting twist on courage and cowardice.
The movie jumps back and forth between present and past as turing (cucumberbatch) is investigated for a suspicious breakin at his apartment. Detective nook (rory kinnear) leads the charge, digging into turing’s secret military record and insisting that he’s really got a case here. When the man who robbed turing confesses he’d been paid to have sex with the mathematician, our hero is dragged into the station to face charges of indecency. Nook, feeling as though events have gotten out of his hands, interrogates turing, who in a bid to exonerate himself and exorcise some demons, fills the detective in on his extraordinary life.
Turing, postnarrative, asks, ‘so which am I? A war hero or a criminal?’ There’s more than just the literal question here, turing is plainly struggling to reconcile the actions he took---saving thousands/millions of lives by ending the war early---with his present condition: alone. Abandoned by the few friends he had and government he rescued. At the end of this sequence we get what I think is the most cowardly moment in the movie. Nook, overwhelmed, responds, ‘I can’t judge you.’ Turing collapses in on himself.
This is an infuriating scene (not because it’s bad, because it’s done so well). Nook’s answer isn’t some enlightened realization that turing has lived such a courageous, complicated life that he, our busybody detective, has no claim on a homosexual mathematical genius. It’s not a submission, a recognition that turing outranks him, in both military and plain human terms. The inspector was so curious and determined to poke into turing’s life that he inadvertently landed turing in jail for being gay. And then, in the moment he learns turing’s history, bows out. Despite whining to his colleagues that turing’s sexual orientation isn’t relevant, he ditches responsibility when it really matters.
Unlike other war movies, nook’s show of cowardice isn’t desertion or collaboration. It’s just the simple refusal to stand up for another man. He may not have any legal or social obligation to help turing, but he does have a moral one. In that interrogation room, the movie shows us a direct human connection and turing’s plea, one last time, for another person to offer benediction, some sort of balm to the unending alienation turing lives with.
This one damning phrase (‘I can’t judge you’) is brilliant because it reinforces the movie’s choice to concentrate on smallscale drama. The war is there, and it can’t be ignored, but we care about this story because of turing’s personal conflicts. An arrogant loner obsessed with developing new technology, turing never shows much of a connection to the war (other than one heartbreaking scene where a colleague begs him to save his brother). His tragedy isn’t cosmic, it’s a series of intimate, facetoface failures where he’s visibly floundering to bridge the gap to the other person each time. His brand of courage is the same as the policeman’s cowardice: personal and selfcontained.