It Was No Game They Played

20 Dec
December 20, 2014

It’s nominated for five Golden Globes, but its star is a machine. A big, clumsy one—and it’s not even animated.

The film is The Imitation Game and the machine was named Christopher by its creator, Alan Turing. It was, in fact, the first computer, and for many years computers were called “Turing machines” in recognition of the genius who is considered “the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.”

In this spectacular film Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing as an obsessive, humorless, distant individual, awkward and with almost no social graces. He expresses himself literally and doesn’t seem to understand that his conversation often appears rude and insensitive. His attention is focused internally and he doesn’t seem to blink. In fact, he exhibits many of the behaviors that are usually associated with Aspberger’s Syndrome, although that possibility is not suggested or implied in the film.

Despite Turing’s quirky mannerisms, however, Cumberbatch makes him a sympathetic, and even lovable, character.

And so, this unique man, who was acknowledged as a superior mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, computer scientist, and mathematical biologist found himself plucked up by the British government and deposited at Bletchley Park, the secret site where the British were attempting to decipher enemy code messages during the Second World War.

Charged with staffing a special team, Turing prepared a mind-boggling crossword puzzle that applicants were ordered to finish in five minutes or less. The first one to complete the puzzle was a young woman, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley in the film. She became part of the motley group that worked with Turing to break the “impossible” Enigma code by which the Nazis communicated with each other during that critical time.

The Enigma was a fearsome machine whose settings were completely changed every 24 hours, and the different combinations into which they could be diverted numbered in the hundreds of millions.

Several years later, after Turing and his group had finally broken the code, they learned that a group of German ships was on its way to destroy a British convoy. Turing insisted, however, that his team not warn the convoy of its pending destruction because that would reveal to the enemy that the British had broken the Enigma code and were able to intercept their messages. This deadly scenario was repeated a number of times, but many other lives were saved because in the end it was estimated that the work done by Turing and his group at Bletchley Park was responsible for shortening the war by two to four years.

Because the work at Bletchley Park was so highly classified, Turing was never acknowledged or celebrated during his lifetime. But now there are academic buildings, streets and highways, and statues bearing his name and likeness in cities not only in Britain but all over the world. There are also countless seminars and lectures bearing his name, and the Turing Award, given annually by the Association for Computing Machinery, is the computer community’s most coveted award, considered comparable to the Nobel Prize.

And the recognition for Turing continues: books, plays, and television have told his story, and now this lush, intelligent, and beautifully presented film, directed by Morten Tyldum from the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, will, hopefully, win filmdom’s highest accolades. The Imitation Game has been nominated for Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Score.

But perhaps the most touching assessment of Turing and his work was penned by his Bletchley colleague, Hugh Alexander, who wrote:

“In the early days he was the only cryptographer who thought the problem worth tackling and he was primarily responsible for the main theoretical work… It is always difficult to say that anyone is absolutely indispensable but if anyone was indispensable it was Turing.

“The pioneer’s work always tends to be forgotten when experience and routine later make everything seem easy, and many of us felt that the magnitude of Turing’s contribution was never fully realized by the outside world.”

The Imitation Game began a limited engagement in selected theaters in Los Angeles on November 28th, but is scheduled to open wide on Christmas Day.

Photo: Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turin in The Imitation Game

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