The Imitation Game tells a story about the singular life of a British mathematician, a logician, a celebrated codebreaker, the pioneer of modern computing, the first person who conceived of the concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and a prosecuted homosexual, Alan Turing.
Since enough has been written about the ‘historical inaccuracies’ spotted in this film, I am going to completely leave it to the prospective viewers to decide whether a bio-pic must be absolutely factually accurate and to judge what the notion of factual accuracy really means for cinematic art. Also, enough has been written about his unparalleled contributions in the area of his specialties by many who are far more qualified than I am, I am going to leave this aspect to the existing literature as well.
Instead, I am going to focus on one aspect of the film, that is, the story of a truly amazing mind. In short, I am asking you to view this stellar ‘bio-pic’ not as a historical drama. I know this sounds like quite a stretch, but please bear with me for a bit longer.
Stripping away all the greatness Turing achieved, what would be left of his story? The theme of alienation and prosecution suggests itself. He was able to see problems differently, because he was different. He was misunderstood and mistreated because of his idiosyncrasy, his lack of social intelligence, and his sexuality. The story of Turing in this light is a devastatingly moving and a poignant one, magnificently embodied by Benedict Cumberbatch. His performance was so compelling that he elevated his character to the point where we care for this character not because of what he achieved; we care for who he is. Even if he failed to crack the Enigma, it really doesn’t matter for our reception of the film, because it is a deeply moving human story in and of itself.
That being acknowledged, there is still a lingering thought which bothers me greatly: the film wouldn’t have been made if Turing did not crack the German code. The contemporary narrative about Turing and this film seems to confirm my worry. Dozens of Silicon Valley executives are heaping praise on Turing and the movie, a phenomenon which, I think, betrays the spirit of this great story, and obscures that which is the most amazing quality of Turing. So what is that quality of his which I find so moving?
It is his utter openness to the different possibilities which can be only conceived when one is willing to question what we call ‘common sense’. Turing is open to question fundamental assumptions; for example, he accepts the possibility of a machine that thinks. This can be only done if one is open to question what ‘thinking’ really is. Just because a machine cannot think like humans, he argues, does not mean that it cannot think. An absolutely extraordinary idea. Turing is also open to the idea that women can perform intellectual tasks as well as men, an idea which was inconceivable to his contemporaries. Hiring Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), his future fiancé, was not due to his self-interest; it was what the logic demanded. The gender or the social class of candidates for the job did not concern him, because he was open to the possibility of someone outside of the privileged class performing difficult and important intellectual tasks. He correctly believed that anyone who can solve the puzzle he posted in the newspaper within the given time limit should be qualified for the job. They did not have to be graduates of Oxbridge or Eaton. This utter openness to what is different from himself, I think, is the most amazing quality that Turing expressed with his life, and it is beautifully and faithfully presented in this film.
So let us be open enough to care for this wonderful soul regardless of what he achieved. Let us not judge him harshly because it is difficult to understand his difficult thoughts. Until we do that, we are still betraying the spirit of this quite lovable fellow human being.
Whilst the ending is crushingly poignant, this is ultimately a story of unparalleled courage. If we are inspired to adopt Turing’s openness to different possibilities even for a fraction of what he represented with his life and work, then we can finally do him the justice he deserves. And no amount of official apologies and Royal pardons can do that. There was, after all, nothing for which to be pardoned.