There are three reasons why “The Imitation Game” is awful:
Firstly, it caricatures the incredibly important story of Alan Turing, the brilliant — and secretly gay — British mathematician who helped decrypt Enigma, the German code machine, in World War Two. In the film, Turing is reduced into a polemical argument: a cruelly mistreated gay genius who alone saved 2 million lives by solving the Enigma. In reality, Turing was a pretty opaque character. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch, he is turned into a kind of fey loner who will blab out the most important secret of the war, and perhaps of the century, to save his skin to the cops. This never happened. Turing was way more complicated, and more interesting, and more discreet and honourable, than this grotesquely simplistic and unjust depiction.
Secondly, Bletchley Park, the secret code-breaking centre where Enigma and many other German and Japanese (and other) codes were decrypted, is portrayed as a soap-opera hotbed of melodramatic sexual and professional tension between ranks and sexes, where people throw things at each other, have screaming matches, and threaten each other with dismissal, prosecution and treason. The film’s “boffin” heroes speak in a ghastly mid-Atlantic argot (calling each other “smart’ for instance, not “clever” or “intelligent”, as they would have said). This portrayal is disgusting. There have been several serious and diligent histories written of this extraordinary and historic place. It is one of the most important stories of the war. Those who worked there (who included my grandfather) were brilliant and highly dedicated. Contrary to what the film suggests, there were no spies there (another outrageous calumny). My grandfather never breathed a word of what he did at Bletchley, including to his son and wife, to his death. He was typical. The depiction in “The Imitation Game” is like portraying D-Day fought by “Dad’s Army” or Hogan’s Heroes. Despicable.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the decryption of Enigma is shown in the film as the serendipitous result of a chance remark in a bar which Turing happens to overhear. The remark in question was that German Enigma typists tended to use the same word — often the name of their wives or girlfriends — at the start of each coded message. This was but one of the many insights that helped decrypt Enigma, and one of the easiest (and earliest). Turing’s own contributions were immense, but he was far from solely responsible. I cannot begin to explain how Enigma was broken. It is a story much better told in various histories (such as Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s “Enigma”). It is fascinating and rich and complicated and, best of all, true – unlike literally every single scene of “The Imitation Game”.
This matters because the breaking of Enigma was one of the most important stories of the war. It shows how diligence, secrecy, discretion, application and sheer intellectual brilliance, by unsung people (women as well as men, who barely get a mention in the film), helped win the war. “The Imitation Game” shows none of these things. Turing’s story is not simply a tragic myth. His extraordinary insights into encryption, mathematics and computing, which are crudely alluded to but never properly explained in the film, merit as much attention as the disgraceful treatment he suffered for his sexuality.
Much is said of ‘dumbing down’ of our culture and our history. “The Imitation Game” is a prime example. Perhaps the writers and directors thought the real history was too “difficult” for a modern audience. If so, they have done the audience as well as the subjects of their film a disservice. “The Imitation Game” is a simplistic, vulgar and pervasively dishonest account of Bletchley and Turing. It has made our collective historical memory stupider and cruder. This is how culture declines.