The Imitation Game: A Smart Person's Fantasy

Film protagonists rarely save thousands of lives through sheer force of intellect. But in the new movie about British mathematician Alan Turing, the man with the best mind gets to be the hero.

Black Bear Pictures

Being super smart is rarely a standalone virtue. Or, at least, that's what a wise, super-smart friend once advised me: Whatever your aspirations in life, there are few fields in which people can get by on intellect alone. Academia, perhaps, and maybe some engineering jobs. Competitive chess, definitely. But the corporate world, or the military? Never. It's not that smart people don't join these kinds of organizations—quite the opposite, in fact. But without social discipline, an appreciation for camaraderie, and, in the case of servicemen, an instinct for following orders, smarts may not get you far.

This was not true of Alan Turing. During World War II, the twentysomething math prodigy worked as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park, the hub of British wartime military intelligence. He invented a machine that decoded information sent on on German Enigma machines, which were used to spread encrypted messages among troops. His work allowed the Allies to gather critical military intelligence, and is thought to have shortened the war by two years—and saved 14 million lives. Moreover, the research he did during the war and the years afterward laid the intellectual groundwork for one of the twentieth century's most important inventions: the computer.

This is roughly the story told in The Imitation Game, a new British film based on Andrew Hodges's 2002 biography of Turing. The filmmakers tweaked some of the details of Turing's story: He wasn't the first  person to crack an Enigma code, for example—this was achieved by Polish military-intelligence officers in 1932, followed by various breakthroughs and improved techniques thereafter. But the character they imagine—eccentric, socially awkward, brilliant—closely follows accounts of the real-life man. Thankfully, they didn't make him charming, or a strategic social thinker, or even that handsome: Whatever you may think of his looks, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing in a masterfully awkward way, managing to move even his mouth in distinctively unattractive ways. Keeping Turing awkward was a smart move, because this is part of what makes him such an unusual, remarkable hero.

There are several moments in the movie when Turing's lack of social grace nearly dooms his work on Enigma. He comes close to getting fired, twice, and his colleagues seem perpetually on the verge of smacking him. He's arrogant, which sometimes helps him, like when he appeals directly to Churchill for funding to build a code-breaking machine. At other times, like when he's being accused of high treason and threatened with execution, his self-assuredness seems ill-advised.

At many of these moments, the people who believe in Turing step in to save him from himself. His dashing colleague, Hugh Alexander, resents Turing for being smarter (this, coming from a top cryptographer and the two-time winner of a world chess championship). Yet, when military officials are poised to destroy Turing's code-cracking machine, Alexander intervenes, threatening to quit if Turing is fired. Joan Clarke, a spunky female mathematician played by Keira Knightley, is often kind to Turing when others aren't, helping him befriend his alienated colleagues. Largely because of this help, Turing is able to do the one thing he does best: be extremely smart.

As the scriptwriters point out, the code breakers at Bletchley Park stay a safe distance from the actual war. Day after day, they go to work on a beautiful campus in small British town, scribbling equations furiously, thinking of ciphers and math instead of gunpowder and tanks. But with just a few decoded messages, they steer battles, save ships, and ultimately help the Allies defeat Germany.

This is the dream of anyone who defines themselves primarily by his or her smarts: to win wars with the mind, to save millions of lives through unprecedented cleverness. Turing is a hero for the nerds, the bullied math geeks who thrive in classrooms but can't figure out the algorithm of human beings. "Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine," a childhood friend, Christopher, says to Turing in a flashback. This line is repeated twice more in the movie, just to make sure viewers get the message: Charm is not required for creativity.

The difference between The Imitation Game and The Revenge of the Nerds is that Turing's triumph is tangible in a way that theoretical advances usually aren't. Eccentric geniuses often make great art, or push the boundaries of quantum physics, or write books that inspire the next generation of brilliant minds. Saving lives, millions of them, is a rare achievement, and a heroic one. For those who thrive on thinking, hovering beyond the public eye, this is the grandest kind of ambition—even more so because it's usually reserved for aspiring presidents and revolutionaries and war generals.

Turing also gets to be the hero, the Great Man, in a way that's rarely represented in film. In movies about science and invention, awkward geniuses often play heroic roles, but not usually in the lead—those parts are reserved for smoother scientists, like Sam Neill's character in Jurassic Park or Matthew McConaughey's character in Interstellar. Eccentric brilliance is often represented, but it's rarely represented as a form of leading greatness.

But The Imitation Game is also different from other Great Man Narratives in an important way: Alan Turing, ultimately, does not win. He cracks Enigma despite institutional animosity and social setbacks and lack of charm. His intellect is enough to help him overcome being different in terms of manner. But it's not enough to overcome bigotry: In the movie and in real-life, Turing was convicted of gross indecency for committing homosexual acts, which were criminal offenses in Britain at that time. He underwent chemical castration as an alternative to prison, and in 1954, he committed suicide.

The movie of Alan Turing's life is a testament to the potential of those who are uncommon. But it is also a condemnation of a society that makes uncommonness something to be overcome, and hidden, rather than celebrated.