Oscars for The Imitation Game?

02/09/2015 11:34 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

Morten Tyldum's Oscar-nominated movie The Imitation Game certainly packs an emotional punch. The first time I watched it, a woman broke down as the movie ended. She sat sobbing while the credits rolled. Others stayed on in their seats, seemingly shocked by the powerful story. It's about Alan Turing, of course, Britain's forgotten but now rediscovered war hero and math genius.

The Imitation Game is turning Turing into a household name, and that's where he belongs, together with Einstein, Churchill, and Hitler--whom Turing did as much as anyone to defeat. There should be a statue of Turing in Central London, alongside Britain's other greatest war heroes.

The movie has been widely criticized for inaccuracy, and the historian in me does wish this fascinating story had been told with a greater regard for the truth. Nevertheless, I've watched it three times now and enjoyed it more each time. The movie is a dramatization, not a documentary. As with a Puccini opera, I doubt it ever set out to be accurate history. Obsessing over whether Tosca gets the history right would be to miss the point of the opera. Did Puccini entertain you? Did his opera move you? Did it make you think?

Tyldum's movie ticks all three of these boxes. The Imitation Game is opera--enjoyable and important opera. It gets the crucial outlines of the story right, correctly saying for example that it was Turing who invented the fundamental logical principles of the modern computer (actually a point seldom acknowledged in the history books). The movie brings out the mammoth importance of Bletchley Park's attack on the German Naval ciphers, an incredible operation that helped save possibly as many as 7 million or more lives. And it correctly places Turing at the center of this.

The filmmakers successfully evoke something of the wartime atmosphere at Bletchley Park with its odd mix of military types and civilians. In among the crisp army and navy uniforms are codebreakers dressed in pullovers and flannels. When somebody starts to get a break into a message we see lifelike scenes of codebreakers clustering around excitedly and looking over each other's shoulders. The crowded bar and its noisy chatter are true to life--although not the business talk we hear among the codebreakers, which was strictly verboten. There are realistic shots of buses ferrying workers in and out, and of the wide-open spaces where people could get away and talk, as when Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley) settle down on the grass with sandwiches to discuss mathematics.

Joan Clarke is often the only woman highlighted in the fictional Bletchley Park, so different from the real establishment with its many thousands of female workers. Everywhere there would have been a constant to-and-fro of Wrens, WAAFs, ATS girls (as they were always known), and civilians like Clarke. The movie might have mentioned that it was actually Clarke who made some of the very earliest breaks into the German Navy's Enigma traffic, cracking messages on three consecutive days in April 1940. At first this ace cryptanalyst earned scarcely more than £2 a week (about $3 at today's exchange rate), almost a pittance compared to what the male codebreakers were paid. Joan remembered that when she first entered Hut 8, one of the men looked up from his desk and said "Welcome to the sahibs' room"--a reference, almost certainly not ironic, to the strictly male enclaves found all across the British Empire.

Traveling around Europe lecturing about Turing, I'm often asked just how accurate the movie is. If you really want to know, the answer is that much of it is wildly wrong, and not just with respect to fussy little details that matter only to professional historians--a lot of the time it's wrong on a lavish scale. Especially important is that The Imitation Game depicts a very unreal Turing.

Early in the movie Turing is described as "insufferable". We are soon told that he's unable to get jokes or follow irony, and too socially challenged to understand a lunch invitation. Even Turing's greatest admirer in the movie, his fiancée Joan Clarke, brands him a "fragile narcissist". But Turing wasn't fragile: he was a resilient and courageous man. He needed every ounce of his courage when he was put on trial for being gay. Nor was Turing a narcissist--with a Spartan outlook on life, he was absorbed in his work and ideas but took little notice of himself. The real Turing was cheerful, lively, good with kids, and laughed a lot. He had a raucous crow-like laugh that sometimes grated on people's nerves--they might have wished he couldn't understand jokes, but in fact Turing loved humor.

The movie portrays the atmosphere at Bletchley Park as at flashpoint, with constant conflicts and clashes of personality. Hugh Alexander, depicted as a womanizer and a "bit of a cad" (another of the fictional Joan's judgments) at one point heaves a glass angrily at Turing's Bombe and then attacks Turing with a wrench. On another occasion he punches Turing, knocking him to the ground. In real life, Alexander was a top manager in a department store chain before going to Bletchley Park--a restrained, good-humored, diplomatic man, skilled in dealing with people. Liked by all, Alexander was regarded not only as a brilliant codebreaker but also a brilliant leader of codebreakers. The movie implausibly shows him burning the records of the codebreakers' work, in a huge bonfire at the end of the war. In fact, Alexander diligently wrote out a lengthy official history of the attack on Naval Enigma, and his detailed account of the codebreakers' triumphs and disappointments was declassified in the 1990s (you can find it on the web here).

Alastair Denniston, the boss at Bletchley Park, is portrayed as an angry buffoon itching to terminate the Bombe project and to sack Turing. The real Denniston, astute and pleasant, was one of only two British codebreakers to see the half-dozen Polish "Bomby" (forerunners of Turing's Bombes) churning away cracking Enigma messages in a secret underground room in the Warsaw countryside, just a few weeks before Hitler's troops overran Poland. Denniston understood the Bombe's potential firsthand. In fact, Bletchley Park itself was his idea--thanks to his extraordinary vision, he was certain that a gang of what he called "men of the professor type" could wreak havoc on Hitler's codes. A skillful behind-the-scenes operator, Denniston succeeded in booting his eccentric brain-heavy operation into action as war broke out.

Sacking and hostility are in the air at the fictional Bletchley Park. Turing himself wants to sack most of his colleagues, saying at one point about Alexander, Peter Hilton, and his other comrades, "They are all idiots, fire them". The real Turing knew that the real Alexander and Hilton were two of the best cryptanalysts on earth. Hilton, who died not long ago, wrote of the "happy atmosphere" among the codebreakers. His words highlight the fictional nature of the hyper-tense office politics portrayed in the movie: "We enjoyed each other's successes. There was, among us, a real camaraderie. My memories of those days are entirely unclouded by any recollection of dispute or bad spirit--there must, I suppose, have been some, but, if so, I was never involved." (Hilton writing in Copeland et al. Colossus: The Secrets of Bletchley Park's Codebreaking Computers, Oxford University Press, 2010.)

I remember Peter's reaction to a previous Enigma movie, Universal Pictures' notorious U571. "Rubbish", he exclaimed spiritedly, and I can imagine him saying the same about his own portrayal in The Imitation Game. In one scene, the fictional Hilton pleads with Turing to save his brother, a gunner on a North Atlantic convoy that Turing and the team have just discovered is going to be torpedoed--a risky idea, since it might have tipped off the Germans that Enigma was being read. But actually Turing himself didn't play any role in deciding how the information from decrypts would be used, contrary to the movie's depiction of him as regularly possessing the power of life or death over many thousands of people. Besides, the real Hilton didn't even have a brother on the convoys.

Hilton would never have done anything that risked compromising their hard-won break into Enigma--any more than the real Turing would have thought of covering up for Stalin's spy John Cairncross, as the movie's Turing does when Cairncross says "If you tell him my secret, I'll tell him yours" (that Turing is gay). Alex von Tunzelmann recently wrote in the Guardian newspaper that, in those scenes, the moviemakers are accusing Turing "of cowardice and treason". It's a great shame that Tyldum and co. chose to depict Turing as protecting a man he knew to be spying for the Soviets, or as foolishly taking ultra-secret documents out of Bletchley Park--let alone as contravening the Official Secrets Act by volunteering the entire Enigma story to an ordinary policeman. It's all false, all operatic concoction.

Also unsettling is the portrayal of Turing as a mad scientist who attempts to recreate his long-dead schoolfriend Christopher Morcom in a computer. In the movie Turing names his Bombe "Christopher", as well as the later computer that he has (improbably) built in his home. He says towards the end of the movie that "Christopher's become so smart". All made up. Also fictitious is the scene in which Turing--his brain fried by the hormones he was sentenced to by the British court that convicted him for being gay--cannot even start a crossword puzzle, let alone solve it. In his review "Saving Alan Turing from His Friends" Christian Caryl describes this as "one of the film's most egregious scenes". He's right. At the purported time of this fictitious episode, Turing was in fact engaged in groundbreaking mathematical investigations into biological growth, using the Manchester computer--some of the most profound and productive research of his life. Yet, serious though Caryl's and Tunzelmann's criticisms are, these blemishes don't spoil the movie for me.

More concerning, though, is a title at the end of the movie that reads: "After a year of government-mandated hormone therapy, Alan Turing committed suicide on June 7th, 1954". However, there is no convincing evidence that Turing's death--which occurred more than a year after the end of the hormone "therapy"--was suicide. In reality the resilient Turing bore this wicked treatment with "amused fortitude"--Peter Hilton's words--and another of his close friends told me that the courageous Turing regarded the hormone therapy "as a laugh". The moviemakers are in fact uncritically repeating the verdict of the 1954 inquest: that Turing committed suicide by taking poison while the balance of his mind was disturbed. But this verdict is now seriously challenged. To judge by the inquest transcripts, no evidence at all was presented to indicate that Turing intended to take his own life, or that the balance of his mind was disturbed. In fact, his mental state appears to have been unremarkable at the time. It is striking that the coroner showed so little interest in seeking out evidence concerning Turing's intentions or his general state of mind.

The computer engineer who worked side by side with Turing from early 1954, Owen Ephraim, told me that he "was the last person to spend working time with Alan". They had "said cheerio" as normal at the end of what turned out to be Turing's last week of work. Yet neither the coroner nor the police thought to question Owen. "Nobody from the police or elsewhere ever interviewed me to ask about his behaviour in those last days before his life ended", Owen said; "As far as I know, no such investigations were made at the University". Owen continued: "If I had been asked, I would have said that Alan Turing acted perfectly normally during those last days, and with as much dedication as ever" (Owen Ephraim quoted in my biography Turing, Pioneer of the Information Age, the final chapter of which is an investigation into the circumstances of Turing's death).

Would a more probing inquest have returned a suicide verdict? Quite possibly not. An open verdict, indicating uncertainty, would have been more appropriate. The exact circumstances of Turing's death may always remain unclear. It should not be stated that he committed suicide--because we simply do not know. Perhaps we should just shrug our shoulders, agree that the jury is out, and focus on Turing's life and extraordinary work.

Why, after this litany of criticisms, do I like the movie? Opera is one thing, scholarly history quite another. Both have their different roles to play in awakening us to an episode from the past. The Imitation Game--dramatic, moving, funny, horrifying, fast-paced, and with sympathetic performances and a great score--is doing exactly that. The movie relates central facts about the 20th century. People should know of the astonishing difficulty of breaking Germany's military codes, and of the enormity of the stakes as Europe sank into darkness in 1939-1940. And people should know who Turing was and what he did. Inaccurate though the movie is, it hits these marks loud and clear. I for one am hoping that Tyldum, Cumberbatch, Knightley and company pull in a whole armful of Oscars.