In the 1970s, in books such as “The Ultra Secret” and “Bodyguard of Lies,” the greatest secret of World War II was revealed – the Allies had broken the supposedly unbreakable German code Enigma. Enigma was a mechanical encoding/decoding machine that was the size of a portable typewriter. When the key code for the day was set, operators could type in the letters of a message and it would generate replacement letters on a lighted display. When the message was received, the operator there would type the coded letters into their Enigma machine and it would display the actual letters of the message. With options in the billions, it would take codebreakers searching manually for the right key code over a hundred years to find it. Since the codes were changed daily, the German High Command was justified in thinking the code was unbreakable. Now the movie The Imitation Game tells the story of the men (and woman) who broke the code, and the tragic final chapter of the man responsible for the breakthrough as well as for much of the technology we now use daily – Alan Turing.
Turing was a mathematician, logician and cryptographer who developed much of the computer theory needed for the machines. He formalized the concept of algorithm and computation, and developed the idea of the “Turing machine” that could mimic the work of other machines. The paper he wrote on that subject was titled “The Imitation Game.” Today most everyone’s life is touched by digital computers, but it was radical science back in the 1930s. When the war broke out in 1939, Britain had a secret outpost located in Bletchley Park where the finest cryptographers in the country were trying to break the German codes. Turing joined the group and soon realized men would never break Enigma. Their only hope was to create from scratch a working version of the Turing machine that could work the code infinitely faster than humans.
After the war, Turing taught at the University of Manchester. It was there in the 1950s that he was arrested for being a homosexual, the same charge that was brought against Oscar Wilde decades earlier. The arrest and conviction destroyed Turing’s life, a sad end for the man whose work shortened the war by years and saved millions of lives. None of that, though, could be said in his defense; his work at Bletchley remained secret for years.
The Imitation Game recreates the time in glorious detail. While the sparkling script by Graham Moore, based on Alan Hodges’ book “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” does take some liberties with the story, it gets the main points right and it finally gives Turing his due. The production was fortunate to have Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Turing, as he gives a towering performance as the awkward, socially-maladroit mathematician, yet still makes him sympathetic. At the Golden Globes, Colin Firth joked that he was interested in doing the role, but the producers decided to wait until Cumberbatch was born. In truth, it’s hard to conceive of another actor who could have pulled off the role with the accomplishment of Cumberbatch.
He’s aided by an excellent supporting cast, including Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke, a brilliant female mathematician at a time when the field was the province of men only. Charles Dance (most recently Tywin Lannister on “Game of Thrones”) plays the head of Bletchley Park, and Mark Strong is excellent as Stewart Menzies, the chief of MI6 from 1939 to 1952. Some think that Menzies was the basis for Ian Fleming’s M, although there are other candidates for that distinction.
This is the first English-language film for Director Morten Tyldum, who has worked mostly in his native Norway. In his hands the movie plays out like a riveting thriller that captures the distrust among countries who were allies during the war but who knew that would change once Hitler was defeated. The production design by Maria Djurkovic (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Mama Mia) is outstanding, as is Oscar Faura’s cinematography.
Colin Firth’s comment at the Golden Globes touched on another aspect of the movie. The script for The Imitation Game sat unproduced for several years. It was voted the best unproduced movie script in 2011. Now honor has belatedly come to the man that Churchill said made the single greatest contribution to the British war effort.