Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Movie Review: The Imitation Game (2014)

By any reasonable measure, this has been a pretty bad year for Hollywood. One could argue this has been the perennial argument for many moons now, but the best of last year seem to trump the best of this year by a long shot. Most troubling is the lackluster slate of films for the busy Holiday season, usually packed with a cornucopia of Oscar-hungry, art house inspired offerings. One film that does stand out from the crowd, however, is The Imitation Game, a British-U.S. historical film that should remind the industry that quality doesn’t necessarily mean failure (while production costs are unavailable, the film has already made $22 million worldwide).

The movie follows the exploits of renowned British mathematician, logician and cryptographer Alan Turing, focusing primarily on the period during WWII when he and a small team of geniuses built the machine that would crack the German Enigma and ultimately lead to the end of the war. Turing is played by the consistently excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, again engaging a complex, anti-social genius as he has as a modernized Sherlock Holmes, a rebooted Khan in Star Trek and a young MI-5 agent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He is surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast of British stars including Keira Knightly as Turing’s confidant Joan Clarke, Downton Abbey’s Allen Leach as Soviet spy John Cairncross, Matthew Goode (A Single Man, Watchmen, Brideshead Revisited, Imagine Me & You) as the affable rival/ally and Mark Strong as the secretive leader of the project.

The story is told non-chronologically in three interchanging periods of Turing’s life, as a schoolboy in love with a young man named Christopher, a year before his suicide when he is charged with indecency (for homosexual sex) and as he is hired and ultimately succeeds in building the machine that many claim single-handedly cut two years off the war and saved in the proximity of 14 million lives. And it is this multilayered narrative device that lies at the heart of the genius of the film. For it is not just an inspiring tale of triumph against great odds, a biopic of a mercurial, and irascible genius or a political film against homophobia – it is all three wrapped into one. On top of that, it asks fascinating questions about the importance of mathematics and statistics to a modern world where calculations often affect the lives of millions without any democratic processes or even accountability to the masses (no one knew about the Engima codebreaking story for almost 60 years).

Each of these stories is told deftly without the saccharine-drenched ingratiation we have become accustomed to since Hollywood first discovered the importance of the close-up and reaction shot or the base humor that seems to stand in as the only alternative to schadenfreude these days. Serious questions are asked about the costs of withholding the secret information they attain each day, while recognizing that the strategic use of that information ultimately saved millions of lives. Questions are also asked of the military and secret services, with the latter generally shown in a negative light (which does parallel the Hollywood treatment of most institutions as inept and ineffective). Turing himself is not left untarnished by his reputation as a difficult anti-social that treated others terribly, while simultaneously finding the humanity in his struggle against the demons of his sexual desires being illegal and his anti-social mentality causing him to essentially die lonely and in pain. Knightly, in particular, is impressive as the woman who helps him overcome the demons to solve the enigma and learn to play well with others, seemingly having left behind her tendency toward cloying and emotive performances behind.

Turning was perhaps most famous for building the first “computer” and establishing the modern foundation of the idea of artificial intelligence before everyone learned of his work against Enigma. And it is this legacy that will probably make him one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, whose work could well define the next two centuries and beyond. This film doesn’t sit at those heights, but it is a welcome diversion that shows that quality films still can be made about important topics without the need for ingratiating emotional manipulation or endless explosions. Rating: A

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