Sunday 23 November 2014

Poor Old Alan Turing: Historical Inaccuracies in The Imitation Game by Someone Who Has Read the Book

Spoiler alert: don't read this piece before seeing The Imitation Game, if you want what happens to be a surprise. The blogger can't keep a secret himself...  

The Imitation Game is an enjoyable film, but I overheard a very telling conversation on exiting the cinema, last Orange Wednesday. 

She: This is something I would like to know more about. 

He: I wonder how much of it is true? 

She: Probably not much. 

God bless the scepticism of youth! The old folk, the mums and dads of this beautiful couple (by which I really mean my dad and grandma), only had to be see the line “based on a true story”, to swallow any fanciful farrago or manipulative and mendacious half-truth. So how much does The Imitation Game apply Hollywood tropes to reveal the poetic truth of Alan Turing’s life, and how much of it is complete cobblers?  

I’m no expert. I mean, I’ve read Andrew Hodges’ book, Alan Turing The Enigma, and my partner is a member of the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee, and Keeper of History at the School of Computer Science, Manchester – – and I have met Professor Bernard Richards, Turing’s last MSc student, and met the late great Stan Kelly, who attended a lecture by Turing at Cambridge. Hmm! One degree of separation x 2. This probably makes me an expert. Competent enough, anyway, to point out some of the more obvious howlers of The Imitation Game

Alan Turing possessed a high-pitched squeak of a voice, not at all like Benedict Cumberbatch’s superb, rounded, thespian tones, even if he does throw in a stammer to convey moments of high stress. 

The hostility of his co-workers and superiors at Bletchley Park is overplayed. This, to satisfy the sacred Hollywood rule that the maverick must overcome the establishment against insuperable odds all the time. Of course,  Turing didn’t go over his boss’s ahead to appeal directly to Winston Churchill. It happened that the wartime leader visited Bletchley Park and it became his pet project. There wasn’t only one machine for Enigma analysis, but several, and they were known plurally as ‘Bombes’, not, singularly, as ‘Christopher’. And ‘Christopher’ wasn't installed at Bletchley, but the Bombes were dotted around various obscure corners of Buckinghamshire, maintained and monitored by Wrens, female members of the Royal Navy. The military top brass, far from attacking them with spanners, spoke of Bombes with affection, as “Eastern goddesses” and “oracles”.  By all accounts, Bletchley was the happiest period of Turing’s life, and the camaraderie among the code-breakers was warm. 

The sub-plot about the Russian spy is pure hokum; the idea that the Nazi salute “Heil Hitler” provided the key to cracking Enigma is fatuity itself: confirmation that Artificial Intelligence can out-do Hollywood Scriptwriter Intelligence every time. And the idea that the workers in Hut 8, as well as cracking Enigma, decided which information to act on and which to let go to lull German suspicion, is preposterous. The scene when a fellow code-breaker realises that his brother’s convoy is about to be attacked might be a neat way to dramatise a moral dilemma, but it’s pretty risible as history. 

Joan Clarke didn’t look like Keira Knightley, but even Keira Knightley doesn’t look like Keira Knightley in some scenes, which is to her vast credit. Joan certainly wasn’t recruited to Bletchley on the basis of her ability to solve crosswords. Nobody was, and there was no examination supervised by Turing, so no opportunity for him to side with Joan against establishment stuffed shirts. (As a schoolboy, I used to fantasise about crosswords replacing exams: I hated exams, and wasn't very good at them, whereas I reckoned myself a dab hand at crosswords. That wasn't going to happen, but it's still more likely than the scenario depicted in The Imitation Game.)  

There is just a hint that Joan is smarter than Alan, albeit stymied by the sexist attitudes of the day. The model here seems to be the 1975 Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman film, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. And the slap on the face that signals the end of Alan and Joan’s engagement mirrors a scene I saw just the night before in an old episode of Frasier – season three, episode 11, ‘The Friend’, to be precise. In both, the hero (Turing/Frasier) feigns emotional coldness to bring closure. On the surface, his behaviour is contemptible; in secret, it is heroic. How noble! How self-sacrificing! How Hollywood!

And it goes on. In the fifties scenes, Manchester University might not exist, and the film gives the impression that Turing built the world’s first stored-program computer, the Baby, single-handedly in his living-room in Wilmslow. But it’s in the depiction of his arrest for indecency that the film tips into libel. We’re supposed to accept that Turing broke his vow of secrecy and told the policeman all about his wartime activity to save his skin. This is manifestly untrue (the role of Blechley Park in WW2 didn’t enter public consciousness until 1974, with the publication of F.W. Winterbotham’s The Ultra Secret) and it's senseless in terms of narrative. If Turing managed to convince the policeman that he was a war-hero, and not a spy, it didn’t do him much good: chemical castration was the same end result. So does the business with the policeman serve as a formal framing device to aid the flow of the narrative? Not really: clunking captions like ‘Bletchley, 1941’ and ‘Manchester, 1952’ still fill the screen to signpost the obvious. 

There’s nothing about morphogenesis, so the film draws a veil over Turing’s discovery of the building blocks of life and focuses on his other main achievements: inventing the computer and winning the war. The Imitation Game is the last stage in the process described in the quote:

“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”

(Sometimes attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, in fact the words were those of Nicholas Klein, a union activist, from 1918.)

Poor old Alan Turing! But spare some sympathy for Andrew Hodges. After meticulously reconstructing Turing's life, and offering the fullest and most convincing portrait we're likely to have of the (morpho)genius, the credits of The Imitation Game include the damning line – ‘Based on Alan Turing The Enigma by Andrew Hodges’. Screenplay writer Graham Moore will likely receive an Oscar for his efforts: Andrew Hodges might never work again. 

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