In 1940, the first full year of the Second World War, Britain was in deep trouble. Germany, Italy and Spain were ruled by fascist dictatorships. Poland had already fallen and then France surrendered in June. The Soviet Union had signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, keeping the Russians out of the war. Across the pond, Roosevelt’s wish to help was thwarted by a reluctant congress, and the USA would not join the fight until the very end of 1941.
The only thing preventing a full-on Nazi invasion was the Royal Air Force, many of whose pilots were still teenagers. As they fought a desperate campaign in the Battle of Britain, the fate of democracy in Europe was in the hands of the Few. It was a battle fought close to home. The grandmother of a friend of mine told me that she once rushed out of her kitchen while she was making jam to witness a dogfight over the fields of Kent.
Meanwhile, another war was being fought: a shadow-war between people who had never met. In Bletchley Park, the British government had assembled a team of mathematicians and linguists and charged them with a near impossible task.
An Enigma machine had been stolen at great risk from the Nazis. Used correctly, it could decode enemy communications and allow Britain to eavesdrop on all the decisions made by the German high command. Unfortunately, the code used to send the messages changed every day, making it extremely difficult to crack.
One member of the team, Alan Turing, had a radical, mind-boggling solution. Instead of working with pen and paper, he proposed the construction of a calculating machine to crack the code automatically and its 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In effect, he set out to invent the computer.
The Imitation Game tells the story of Turing’s life with the main focus on the war effort. It deftly jumps back and forth in time, using broad brush strokes to establish the military, political, scientific and legal norms of the time.
In the lead role, Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as Alan Turing. He is a little too old for the part during the war years, but his performance is so good that it doesn’t really matter. Alex Lawther is also very good as the young Turing, playing the character as a pupil at a miserable 1920s boarding school.
This is a film about difficult decisions taken by difficult people. For all his brilliance, Turing was a very difficult man whose character often inhibited his ambitious plans by rubbing his colleagues up the wrong way. The script handles this aspect of his personality with great care and intelligence.
In doing so, it also demonstrates something that was true then as well as now. The development of complex systems cannot be achieved by just one person working alone. They can only be built by teams, and Turing’s achievement was partly in gathering and driving a team to design something that had never been made before. Screenwriters of Steve Jobs biopics, please take note.
Throughout his life, Turing had to struggle. Even when he had proved himself as a key (if covert) player in the war effort, he remained unable to relax. For he had a secret that, if revealed to his superiors, could destroy his life and career.
It would have been very easy to depict Turing as a defenseless victim. The Imitation Game avoids that approach completely and focuses very closely on Turing’s great inner strength and ruthless obsession with building his machine. It is a stronger film as a result.
I watched this movie on New Year’s Day and I’m convinced that I have already seen the best film of 2015. It will be a strong contender at the Oscars and may well push Cumberbatch over the finishing line, soaking up all those Academy votes that went to The King’s Speech back in 2011.