Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Imitation Game

Performing a Blood-Soaked Calculus
"We're Going to Break an Unbreakable Nazi Code and Win the War."  "Oh."

Alan Mathison Turing was finally awarded a posthumous pardon for "crimes of indecency" by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013, 59 years after his apparent suicide by allegedly eating (in a morbid reflection of his favorite childhood fairy tale) a cyanide-laced apple. He had been a year into taking a chemical castration drug after being convicted of acts of homosexuality, at the time illegal in England.

If he had failed in his activities during the second World War, it is very likely that a Nazi court would have done the same thing, albeit executing Turing. But, instead, a grateful surviving nation turned on the one man whom Winston Churchill stated "made the single biggest contribution to Allied Victory"—the breaking of the Nazi Enigma codes with which they encoded radioed messages to its forces. And, in peace and freedom, I'm typing on the keyboard of a descendant of one of Turing's constructs created during that endeavor. 

The Imitation Game is the first film that can actually say it is "based on the True Story"* of those code-breaking efforts—kept secret until 1973** at the dawn of the new age of computers.
It is 1951, and there is a flurry amid military, intelligence and academic circles: Alan Turing's apartment has been burgled. The police come to investigate (in the form of Inspector Rory Kinnear) and discover nothing has been stolen, and Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is dismissive. The detective finds this suspicious—usually crime-victims want "bobbies" around investigating; that Turing doesn't means he has something to hide.

No shit, Sherlock. Alan Turing has more things to hide than you could shake an Official Secrets Act at. And your first clue is that he gets a lot of respect...but you can never find out why. "Paying attention?" Turing asks at the beginning of the film. "Good. If you're not paying attention, you'll be missing things."

It's 1939. Turing applies for a job at Bletchley Radio manufacturing. The person conducting the interview is Cmdr Denniston (Charles Dance), who takes an almost instant dislike to the humorless, arrogant, socially-unskilled young man sitting in front of him who states he really doesn't want the job, but he wants the challenge. Denniston opens the door to escort the creep out and Turing says one word: "Enigma." And everything stops.

It won't be the last time that happens.

Turing is hired.  From the start, he's an irritant. While the others in the group are trying to break codes, tackling the problem head on, Turing is designing a machine to do the process. To the others, he's doing nothing but wasting time. But to Turing, that's exactly the problem he's trying to tackle. The Germans change their codes at midnight; first messages appear at 6am—meaning the code is only good for 18 hours, and then is changed. The process begins again—daily—to break the code out of 159 million million million possible variations. Turing's solution is not to find the needle in the haystack, but to eliminate the haystack. To do that, he goes over everyone's head to secure the funds to make his decoding machine (not historically accurate, but it seems the filmmakers intention is to show Turing as a particularly nettling outcast, as opposed to an idiosyncratic obsessive), which vexes his superiors and annoys his peers. The siphoning of resources and man-hours in an all-or-nothing boondoggle makes Turing the target of all sorts of invective—except for the person of Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong, in an especially focused performance) of MI6, who seems to not only condone, but encourage the creation of the machine, which Turing calls "Christopher."
Knightley, Strong and Cumberbatch:
Sounds like a '60's folk trio...
Menzies also encourages Turing's recruitment activities, which produces an unexpected dividend, a mathematician named Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley, in a restrained—for her—very British performance that only reveals any negative emotion, specifically, through her eyes), who becomes Turing's closest confidante and co-conspirator, as well as his strongest bridge to getting along with his co-workers.***  Cumberbatch is charmingly daft in an unpleasant way, showing a vulnerability that evokes sympathy, but survivors of Bletchley Park describe Turing as not such an insufferable "Sheldon Cooper"-type, but as someone who, though he had eccentricities, was not without humor or charm, but never let anyone suspect he was not a genius.
That's a distraction. But the best thing about The Imitation Game is its portrayal of the world of secrets as being a very (very) complicated place. For once the code is cracked (I'm not giving away any secrets here, myself—the Nazis did lose the war), there comes the complicated issue of what to do with that knowledge. If the Nazis ever suspected that their unbreakable code was compromised, it would be as bad as never cracking it at all; a new system would be created and the allies would be back to the designing board, trying to crack a new code system.
And that's the moral quandary facing the code-breakers and strategists during World War II. Yes, you may know what the enemy is planning. But, to act on that information stopping their efforts and potentially saving thousands of lives would only alert the enemy to their vulnerability. At that point, the worth of cracking the code becomes nil, and so battles must be chosen, plans thwarted through misinformation and sabotage, by any means other than letting the enemy know that you know. At that point, World War II became a secret war fought on two fronts: on the field of battle and the back-rooms, reading the reports and calculating the costs and choosing the least destructive result.

The code-breakers saved incalculable lives...because there's no way of knowing how many would have been saved...or lost...if the cracking of Enigma was exposed.
That horrific reality informs the final stages of The Imitation Game as the battle must continue, not on moral grounds, but on logical ones. Even the purest of efforts can be sullied. Even the black and white of 1's and 0's can be compromised to stark shades of gray and crimson. Reality blurs and bleeds. And the quest of The Imitation Game—to determine whether a correspondent is human or machine—may be clear in theory, but questionable in reality.
His Memorial plaque in Manchester reads:
Father of Computer Science,
Mathematician, Logician
Wartime Codebreaker,
Victim of Prejudice
The statue to Turing at the Bletchley Park Museum.

* Another film, Enigma (2001) told a highly fictionalized story with a script written by Tom Stoppard, directed by Michael Apted (and produced by Lorne Michaels and Mick Jagger).

** Actually, the British efforts didn't become known in detail until 1974.  The Polish team of cryptographers wanted their part in the process known and so one of them published in 1973.  Is it "indecorous" to suggest that as these men were reaching the end of their lives they wanted the real story told, despite the intentions of their states' secrets mandates?  Britain released a number of documents in 2011.

*** Example: when fellow code-breaker Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) hands Turing a way to increase "Christopher's" speed, he replies "That's not an entirely completely terrible idea," she interprets: "That's 'Alan' for 'thank you'."

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