The mathematician and accidental innovator Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a child prodigy whose precarious and intuitive love and understanding of mathematics arrived before he could read. Educated both at Princeton and Cambridge, his undergraduate paper “On Computable Numbers” set the stage for his lifelong (if brief) quest “to make a single machine which can be used to compute and computable sequence.” We can only appreciate, now in our digital age, how far ahead he was of his time, and how unusual – in the 1930s and 40s, technological innovations were not to be expected of (theoretical) mathematicians. This paper and subsequent practical applications signaled a significant shift in applied mathematics and in technology, whereby numbers could “do” things.
The Imitation Game wisely, if unsatisfyingly, focuses only on that period of Turing’s career as a mathematician-cryptographer in Bletchley Park during World War II. Based liberally on Andrew Hodges’ highly respected biography, Alan Turning: An Enigma, the film is a blockbuster genre biopic with all the ingredients for an Oscar nomination: the ubiquitous, crowd-pleasing and terrific Benedict Cumberbatch (playing Turing), a pro-Allied World War II drumbeat (there are stunning montages of London evacuees and interspersed historical footage), unrequited romances (of the homo- and hetero- variety), and most of all, a story about a bullied nerd who grows up to be a behind-the-scenes military hero who helps to end the war. Like other “genius” films (A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting), we love and loathe the anti-hero, who rejects love even as he needs it, and who solves the most difficult equations, while finding the rest of life perplexing. The Imitation Game’s closest kin, though, is Enigma (2001) which also focuses on the romances, intrigues, secrets, and code-cracking at Bletchley (with period-piece favorite Jeremy Northam). The Imitation Game is enjoyable, lovely to look at, and will give its audiences enough thrills and tears and recommendations to friends. But for those with a real historical (or theoretical) interest in Turing, I suggest the BBC’s spare and unromantic Breaking The Code (1996), which is also based on the Hodges biography and adheres most closely to his story. For inventiveness and sheer fun, you would do well to revisit Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998), which captures the stark madness of the high-functioning.
With a wickedly charming Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander and lots of mathematical scribblings on walls.
The Imitation Game, dir. Morten Tyldum, 113 min. Studio Canal, Black Bear Pictures, et al., 2014.