The Imitation Game

The Big Bang Theory, ca. 1941

People love underdog stories, especially when the underdogs are eccentric loners, so I don’t begrudge screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum for embellishing details of Alan Turing’s personal life – you have to do some invention when it comes to his relationship with Joan Clarke, because we need Keira Knightley to be in it a lot, and the film needs to “say something” about her situation.  You need to trim the Bletchley Park cryptographers down to a ragtag band of misunderstood do-gooders, because it makes people think of Star Wars and El Dorado and everything else they like.  You need to create conflict amongst this group, because a bunch of coworkers getting along for two full hours is 1) boring; 2) not analogous to the real-life experiences of the current working class.  But portraying Turing as being somewhere on the autism spectrum (when by all accounts he was not) does something interesting: because of series like The Big Bang Theory and other popular media that employ the cutesy, popcorny method of depicting people with Asperger’s as asexual geeks who happen to be geniuses, and whose personal struggles (common TV/movie ones include inabilities to understand jokes and sarcasm, lack of interest in socializing, and complete immunity to romance) make them adorable and endearing, plenty of laypeople think they know everything about an extremely varied mental condition that affects people differently depending upon myriad factors, including personality.  On the way out of the theatre, one of the chatty people in the row behind me made this comment: “I think he was just confused about what he was.”  Mind you, Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film) utters the line “I am a homosexual” several times to several different people, says “I prefer men, not women” and “I have had affairs with men,” is shown in an almost-romance with a boy during adolescence, and does not deny his sexuality when he is criminally prosecuted for “gross indecency” (i.e. happening to love the company of the same gender).  So it’s partly a basic comprehension problem, but it’s also media damage: how many Emmys has Jim Parsons won for playing the lovable nerd upon whom so many now base their “knowledge” of Asperger’s?  True, the people in the row behind me are not a very large sample size, but these micro-cases illustrate the larger problem: passive, casual media being taken as fact, and dangerous ignorance about serious subjects as a product of a popular TV show.

The Imitation Game follows Turing and his team’s attempt to break Nazi Germany’s Enigma code, thereby shortening World War II and saving millions of lives.  The story movement involves slightly-higher-than-garden-variety mystery stuff, and is buffered by a very personable cast: Matthew Goode plays Hugh Alexander, Turing’s main foil in the group, which includes Peter (Matthew Beard), Jack Good (James Northcote), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), and most importantly, Joan Clarke (Knightley), who shows up to Turing’s all-but-impossible mass interview for a new cryptographer, resists sexist comments, and aces the test more efficiently than even its creator can.  All the while, the group combats antagonism from their commanding officer, Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance doing what he does), whose motivation is to have the last word, no matter what, even if it allows the Nazis to destroy the world, apparently.  Soon, Turing and Joan become engaged so that she can stay and continue her invaluable work on the Enigma project – her overbearing parents are concerned about her being a single career-woman – and despite reservations on both sides, they care for each other and have each other’s backs in every way.  From there, as Turing puts together a machine named after his childhood almost-boyfriend Christopher, who died of tuberculosis, the team grows closer.

Despite the minor female presence in the film, interestingly enough, Turing’s biggest epiphanies occur as a result of female influence.  Joan’s ideas fuel much of the anti-Enigma project’s success, and it’s a passing comment from Helen (Tuppence Middleton), a friend of Joan’s who flirts with Hugh, that causes a major turning point in Turing’s thinking (which allows Cumberbatch to do the always-fun “Epiphany causes main character to rush out of room, crashing into as many people and breakable things as possible in the process”).  Knightley controls all of her scenes, and one of the toughest things about watching the film is that her Joan Clarke could be the protagonist of her own film (and she’s layered enough that we get the sense that she’s leading an offscreen film we never get to see).  The scene wherein she obliterates all thought that a woman can’t do this job is triumphant, but these scenes can be problematic in period pieces, and I’m not talking about her victory as much as the language used (and this was also a big issue in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire): filmmakers create these spectacles with the intention of looking smugly upon the awful ways the patriarchal/Christian power structures treated certain people in the past, without thinking about the ways in which these are still issues for us in the present.  Add to that the fact that the target audience for many of these narratives (adolescent boys) are still feeling things out (i.e. largely clueless to the struggles of women and people of other cultural backgrounds), and when they’re being constantly fed this stuff, this type of language becomes normalized now.  It isn’t enough to just show things “how they were” when you’re attempting to illustrate how far we’ve come, or how certain revolutionaries and hero(ine)s were crushing the status quo: in art, in order to say something, you have to actually say it.

The crown jewel of The Imitation Game, unsurprisingly, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, which all at once honestly portrays the struggles of a gay government employee in the ’40s (and respects the real-life Turing by not showing sex scenes or taking sharp turns into conjecture/invention) and the difficulties of being that fish out of water, taken to the extreme with the personality prescribed to him by the filmmakers.  His last scene with Knightley, highlighting the development of their friendship and trust over the years of (and following) the war, is amongst the most emotional of the year.  It’s incredible that a story like this can be buried for fifty years, while borderline propaganda like American Sniper gets greenlit to glorify violence and accessorize women within a few years of its supposed real-life events.  With The Imitation Game, we have a rarity: a war drama that does not suggest that a sainted soldier – rugged, white, heterosexual, male, American – was responsible for the greatest heroics.  It’s responsibly told, well-characterized, and has the only end-title “where are they now” sequence at which I’ve ever teared up.

The Imitation Game (2014); based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges; screenplay by Graham Moore; directed by Morten Tyldum starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, and Mark Strong.

The Debt

Transylvanians Vs. Nazis

Let’s be clear about one thing: Jessica Chastain carries this film.  I realize giving Helen Mirren top billing is a better marketing strategy, but y’know, credit where it’s due, and all that.

The Debt, as told by Matthew Vaughn and John Madden (director of a great adaptation of Proof, not the blowhard football commentator), is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film by Assaf Bernstein.  The story follows Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain in the sixties, Helen Mirren in the present day) as she recalls her days as a Mossad agent.  In the sixties, She and her partners, Stefan (Martin Csokas, Tom Wilkinson) and David (Sam Worthington, Ciarán Hinds) are dispatched to Berlin on a secret mission to capture Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen).  The film opens in the present, after Rachel’s daughter (Romi Aboulafia) has published a celebrated book on her mother’s life, most notably Rachel’s capture and killing of Vogel.  After watching the actual events of the sixties timeline, however, we learn that Vogel escaped Mossad custody, and the trio of agents decided to tell a lie in order to get out of Berlin.

The film’s performances are passionate and impressive, despite some of the flaws in the writing of the characters themselves.  Rachel, as played by both Chastain and Mirren, is complicated, emotional, dedicated, and ever zealous.  Stefan and David take the Good Agent/Bad Agent roles, which comes off as easy characterization but also gives Sam Worthington an actual role to play, as opposed to just shooting at animated people and rattling off tired one-liners.  The gifted Christensen plays Vogel as your garden variety mustache-twirling villain, completely unashamed of performing horrific experiments on Jews during the war, and perfectly able to turn the trio of protagonists against one another while captured (which brings back unfortunate memories of the mediocre Suicide Kings).  It’s amazing to see how Nazis, as portrayed in film, have become almost caricatures of evil – psychological masterminds who physically embody the concept of manipulation.  If there is a group of people from history that should be demonized, it’s surely the Nazis, but this exact characterization is becoming routine in films.  When was the last time you saw a Nazi character who wasn’t a master manipulator and/or genius?  I wonder what effect this will have on folks studying history a hundred years from now.  In addition, the absence of Jewish actors in a film about Jewish characters is a bit disconcerting, as are the exaggerated accents, which made me wonder at times whether the characters weren’t from Transylvania.

Despite these issues, as well as the morally challenging and outright confusing ending, the film remains solid and engaging throughout.  Jessica Chastain goes above and beyond her previous roles, and her scenes in a doctor’s office (posing as a patient at Vogel’s OBGYN during the plot to capture him) render Rachel as vulnerable, both physically and otherwise, as any character you’ve seen in any one predicament.

It would be nice to see this film’s actors get some recognition for this project.  At least give Jessica Chastain’s legs an award for Best Fight Scene.

The Debt (2011); written by Matthew Vaughn; directed by John Madden; starring Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Jesper Christensen. 

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