Imitation Game Review
What do the moon landings and the first computer have in common? Neither would have been possible without Nazi scientists. While Werner von Braun saw a glorious transformation from hardcore Nazi overseer into a star spangled American hero, Konrad Zuse made the mistake of being a boring scientist in a field that could not bring mass destruction and misery to the human race; at least not in the late 40’s. I know what you’re thinking, the first mechanical computer was created by Charles Babbage so I should give team Brit the point back.
The Imitation Game is the latest installment in the Oscar-bait movies about British / American mathematicians. This story is set in wartime Britain where a team of code breakers are put together to crack the Enigma machine the Nazis use to encrypt messages. This proves to be an almost impossible task, as the machine can support millions of encryption combinations based on its settings. Leading the team is an oddball by the name Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician with the social insight of a goldfish. He has the idea to build a machine that would systematically check every setting until it reached the right one. This machine will become the blueprint for modern computers. Because of moviemaking reasons, this elegant and obvious solution is met with hostility by both fellow code breakers and the people that trusted them with the task. Alan eventually pulls through with the help of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and rallies the team around his project.
Living in our sterile habitats built from steel, concrete and ignorance, we’ve become oblivious to the fact that everything in the anthroposphere has a reason for existing. Typing text on our screens we don’t notice the overwhelming complexity that goes into encoding, transmitting and decoding information almost instantaneously. We never realize that the concrete we walk on had to be mixed and poured. We don’t realize that the smiling teenager on the billboard is a vessel to make us buy toothpaste. When we go to the movies we don’t notice that we’re manipulated. Art also follows the sausage rule. You don’t want to hear fret buzzing or that annoying screech when a guitarist is too slow on his chord changes just like you don’t want to read “The Last Man” and see Camus’ notes on that first draft. This is the main gripe I have with this movie; is as manipulating as a career guidance counselor and as condescending as George Carlin. In some way it reminds me of that disturbing scene in “Terminator” when Arnold pulls his eyeball and drops it in the sink revealing the metal skeleton underneath.
Reading the synopsis you might think that this movie is aimed at electronics aficionados or math nerds, but you would be wrong. That would make this a 2 hour long movie about people chain-smoking over electronic diagrams with wartime Britain as a backdrop. First of all, in 2014 the vast majority of people still see math and electronic gadgetry as modern magic. A sad irony as technology is becoming a Maslow level necessity. Second that sounds like a boring European movie and we’re not all hipsters yet. So the story of beating the Enigma is focused more on interpersonal dynamics and Alan Turing not liking to have sexual intercourse with women. In fact the producers use Alan’s almost robotic mannerisms to summon some unintentional humor, especially in his interactions with Commander Denniston. Tough luck Charles Dance, you were so popular in that HBO soap about dragons and zombies that you can expect some typecasting in the future. This movie drags on with its agenda as people are constantly interfering with Alan’s project, as though they knew he would eventually achieve greatness and all of their antagonism would pay off in the end for the people watching this story.
It culminates with the inevitable eureka moment. A year and a half after starting the project they realize that every encrypted message ends with two words of 4 and 6 characters which they realize are “Heil Hitler”. Because of this, they decide to narrow the search and set de decoding machine appropriately. This scene ends up making all the code breakers look like morons. The ensuing mad dash through the night might have you laughing at the caricatures to which they reduced some of the most intelligent people of the 1940’s. But it also undermines the greatness of the achievement.
What happens next in the movie is just Oscar bait filler. Benedict Cumberbatch is putting on the dog and pony show, trying to impress the Academy and the producers, throw away the liberal approach to history and just go straight for the heart. When the rotors finally stop for the first time, our heroes grab the decoded setting feed it into the captured Enigma and decipher their first message. They conclude that the war was over. Hell yes, the war is over. We, the brilliant mathematicians, single handedly won it for the allies. We still need some potato eating fleshy mortals to go over there and fight, but the hard part is already done.
Part of growing up is facing the cold, unforgiving universe so let’s debunk a few statements. The convoys in the Atlantic were not at all that defenseless. In fact, once the allied fleets adapted to the German submarines with better weapons and detection, it was open season. “Das Boot” does a great job a conveying the hopelessness of German submariners. Also, the battle of Normandy was not decisively influenced by decoded messages. 1944 – France was not the climax of a titanic duel, in fact it was the allies kicking the teeth out of Nazi soldiers long after they were defeated in facto. “Saving Private Ryan” is less about liberating Europe from the Nazis and more about stopping the spread of communism over the continent by filling in the eventual power void.
Our lives might look like a cynical game of connect the dots, however world history is a lot more than that. If we’re going to say that Alan Turning invented the electronic computer then I would point out that without the Enigma machine we would not have the Turing machine. Without the Nazis we would not have the Enigma machine. Without America, Great Britain and France condemning 2 generations of Germans to extreme poverty, because of they followed the whims of their neurotic, overcompensating Kaiser, we would not have WW2. You can’t blame the German people because after 20 years of hardship, many nations would have elected a moronic self-loathing misanthrope. Americans did it in late 2000 after a decade of relative prosperity. And last but not least last we should thank Adolf Hitler, for his huge ego shortened the war by far more than the team at Bletchley Park. Actually, we should thank his parents for blessing him with a low self esteem, a Napoleonic complex and terminal mediocrity. This whole argument is starting to sound ridiculous, isn’t it? That’s because history is less about a clear, linear string of events and more like a huge book of shit happens with timestamps on them.
Sure, the team at Bletchley Park contributed to the destruction of the Nazis. As so happens, in total war, a country uses all of its assets and mathematicians are more useful at decoding messages than digging trenches (too bad for Wolfgang Doeblin the French government didn’t have this insight). Some people chip in a lot more than others, and we tend to look upon those people as exceptional because most of the time they are. If science won the war for the allies then I would point out that the Nazis built ballistic missiles, jet fighters, and conventional weapons so advanced that the allies had no real answer to them, but they lost. We look upon the WW2 as a narrative of good versus evil because one side was on a demented crusade to systematically exterminate certain people for reasons that made no sense. However in the blue corner, the good guys enslaved 2/3 of the world’s land mass, institutionalized slavery and also condemned millions of people to hunger and misery. Not to mention that their primitive, homophobic laws would force Alan to end his own life. The fact of the matter remains that the Nazis had little to no chance of winning the war from 1941 onward, so the story of their destruction should be about why fascism (whether we’re talking about industrialized murder or invasion of privacy) is evil and not about who got the most punches in.
Apart from its skewed and simplistic view of its message this is a good movie. As long as you can cope with obvious manipulation then you can also get a few laughs in. The movie goes off the rails into a spy thriller at one point. There’s an MI6 guy who delivers his first line with half of his body hiding behind a bookcase like a corny French comedy. The team starts dancing like barbarians as they burn the secret documents when the war ends. Alan’s attempt at telling a joke ends up being hilarious. The characters grow on you and whole tale ends up being endearing.
This movie is like trying to score with a religious nut I guess. Keep your eyes on the prize, phase out all the obvious bullshit and you might find yourself enjoying it.