Fishing for Oscars, "The Imitation Game" follows formula

by Andrew Kingsley | 1/4/15 5:39pm

There’s an unfortunate irony in Morten Tyldum’s choosing “The Imitation Game” (2014) as the title for his most recent movie, since he has recycled aspects of “The King’s Speech” (2010) in pursuit of claiming some of those shiny golden statues. Then again, Tom Hooper’s masterpiece is not the worst movie to emulate. Just replace the stuttering King George VI with the stuttering mathematician Alan Turing and use the same composer (Alexandre Desplat) and you should have Best Picture. Despite Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, “The Imitation Game” is not on par with theng former Oscar-winner, and I hope the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has the sense not to bite again.

Benedict Cumberbatch takes off his Sherlock peacoat to star as the cunning, possibly autistic Alan Turing, the famed British mathematician who with a team of cryptographers broke the Nazi’s Enigma code. In only three years, Turing created the Bombe, one of the world’s first computers. The Bombe deciphered all Nazi messages for the Allies and ultimately shortened the war.

One needs a machine to beat a machine, and Cumberbatch plays Turing as if he were filled with wires and circuit breakers. With little affect he goes about his work, tinkering, scribbling, only emoting through the rise and fall of his lips’ doughy corners ­— reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in “Rain Man” (1988). Turing alienates his coworkers and attracts suspicion from detectives. But like WALL-E (2008), his incapacity for human understanding is often funny, and Turing’s battle with us mere mortals creates some of the best scenes.

An inept team of decoders plodding away at their human decryption methods surrounds Turing and their presence only amplifies his genius. Besides the help of chess champion Hugh Alexander, Tyldum’s Turing seems to breaks the Enigma code single-handedly. Monomaniacal in his pursuit of constructing the Bombe, Turing disregards and fires his coworkers. If he were “the Prof” as his colleagues called him, then Turing would be that professor who forgets your name, fails you and ignores your pleas for an extension, but somehow manages to make you like him.

Surprisingly the most mundane and generic scenes are the ones focusing on the code breaking and war-embattled London. Shots mirroring those from “The King’s Speech” of sandbag walls and scrambling citizens seem tastelessly garnished throughout the film. In his attempts to replicate its successful Oscar formula, Tyldum’s recreation of 1940s England feels two-dimensional, like a Western set with nothing behind the storefronts.

What rescues the film is not the machines but the people behind them. As a gay man, Turing was in constant danger of being discovered and convicted (homosexuality was still a crime in WWII England). He names the Bombe “Christopher” after his love interest as a schoolboy and treats it as his child, protecting and nurturing it. Christopher could have been Turing’s offspring, with the same robotic, calculating genes as its father, guaranteed to continue Turing’s legacy, and what a legacy — I’m typing this article on a modern-day Christopher. My own children won’t be anywhere near as influential.

Yet the Allies could only use Christopher sparingly. The Allies could never let on that they knew Enigma, otherwise the Nazis would create a new code. The most shocking revelation of the film is that the war was won, in essence, through statistics. Knowing the Nazis’ tactics in advance, the government strategically selected the battles to fight or forfeit and end the war efficiently. When one of the cryptographers’ brothers is about to die on a ship headed for an ambush, they can only sit and wait for destruction. Escape would be too suspicious. Turing knew the numbers all too well, and surrendered the few to help save the whole. Rarely has sacrifice been captured so painfully yet aptly.

Although the film follows the recent Best Picture Oscar-bait formula for thrilling historical war dramas, it succeeds in capturing the character, or lack of character, of an enigmatic, tortured genius. It’s frightening to think that a man Winston Churchill believed to have had the single greatest impact on the British war efforts was prosecuted for being homosexual. We are all in debt to Turing, and the film serves as an homage to his sacrifices.

Rating: 8.2/10 “The Imitation Game” is playing at 4:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. at The Nugget.