Image from Letters of Note where you can read a letter from Alan Turing to Norman Routledge, written just before Turing pleaded guilty to the charge of "sexual offences with a young man."
Ok. I admit it. I really liked The Imitation Game - but I'm beginning to believe that that admiration came from two things: 1) my lack of knowledge about Alan Turing, and 2) my belief that life was "done to" Mr. Turing. That he was a victim of a time and law that because he was different, he was to be punished. Which to some degree is the truth, but leads to reactions based more on emotion and the huge, pink, triangle-shaped chip I tend to have on my shoulder, rather than historical fact. I don't like to be lead by the nose regardless.
For example, during the course of the movie, I was unclear how much Alan Turing and Sheldon Cooper (of the TV show The Big Bang Theory) actually had in common. At least according to the movie, they were nearly one and the same.
But after reading the review of The Imitation Game in this week's The New York Review of Books, I fear I may be wrong. (The review has been on their website since December.)
To anyone trying to turn this story into a movie, the choice seems clear: either you embrace the richness of Turing as a character and trust the audience to follow you there, or you simply capitulate, by reducing him to a caricature of the tortured genius. The latter, I’m afraid, is the path chosen by director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore in The Imitation Game, their new, multiplex-friendly rendering of the story. In their version, Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) conforms to the familiar stereotype of the otherworldly nerd: he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t even understand an invitation to lunch. This places him at odds not only with the other codebreakers in his unit, but also, equally predictably, positions him as a natural rebel.
These errors are not random; there is a method to the muddle. The filmmakers see their hero above all as a martyr of a homophobic Establishment, and they are determined to lay emphasis on his victimhood. The Imitation Game ends with the following title: “After a year of government-mandated hormonal therapy, Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954.” This is in itself something of a distortion. Turing was convicted on homosexuality charges in 1952, and chose the “therapy” involving female hormones—aimed, in the twisted thinking of the times, at suppressing his “unnatural” desires—as an alternative to jail time. It was barbarous treatment, and Turing complained that the pills gave him breasts. But the whole miserable episode ended in 1953—a full year before his death, something not made clear to the filmgoer.
This is indicative of the bad faith underlying the whole enterprise, which is desperate to put Turing in the role of a gay liberation totem but can’t bring itself to show him kissing another man—something he did frequently, and with gusto. And it most definitely doesn’t show him cruising New York’s gay bars, or popping off on a saucy vacation to one of the less reputable of the Greek islands. The Imitation Game is a film that prefers its gay men decorously disembodied.
To be honest, I’m a bit surprised that there hasn’t been more pushback against The Imitation Game by intelligence professionals, historians, and survivors of Turing’s circle. But I think I understand why. After so many years in which Turing failed to get his due, no one wants to be seen as spoiling the party. I strongly doubt, though, that many of those in the know are recommending this film to their friends. (For his part, Andrew Hodges is apparently opting to avoid talking about the movie during his current book tour—it’s easy to imagine why he might choose to do so, and I don’t fault him for it.)
Also, as someone who is helpless when it comes to shows of sentimentality, I tend to cry at movies...a lot. And then when my gushing is shown to be caused by overly-false sentimentality, I tend to hate the thing that caused it more than anything else. For example, the machine Christopher. I bought into that Turing called his machines Christopher because I had enough knowledge to be dangerous to myself and others. And I bought it hook, line and sinker. But apparently there is no historical basis for this bit of romantic mush, and I became a blibbery idiot for no reason. And I typically do not give you two chances to full me. (Well, at least not anymore.)
And, Benedict, don't worry, my darling. I don't blame you.