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The Imitation Game (2014)

Code Hero

Recently, I've had the fortune of writing about awards-season bait that subverts expectations and gives audiences not only a reason to visit the theatre, but to invest in remarkably innovative filmmaking. Movies like Birdman, Wild, and Foxcatcher play as if the people behind them know that fall and winter are typically reserved for (to borrow a phrase from True Romance) unwatchable movies made from unreadable books, and have done their best to buck the trend. But there are plenty of that other kind of movie scrambling for nods, and it's disheartening to call out The Imitation Game as a needy little bugger.

I mostly enjoyed Morten Tyldum's look at the tragic, secretive life of World War II code breaker Alan Turing. But The Imitation Game is the very definition of crowd-pleasing, judges-courting convention, and it's a big comedown. I almost wrote "letdown" there, but that's unfair to the fine work everyone put in to making a slick, serviceable diversion.

Based on Andrew Hodges' book, "Alan Turing: The Enigma" (adapted for the screen by Graham Moore), the story follows Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) from the 1930s through the 1950s, crisscrossing between his super-secret job at MI6 to a break-in that leads to his being outed as a gay man (an actual crime during that era). A stodgy bureaucrat (Charles Dance) recruits Turing to be part of a code breaking team, charged with figuring out how to beat the Nazi's Enigma machine. The device distributes encrypted orders to Hitler's legions every day at 6am, and re-sets eighteen hours later--meaning the already inscrutable ciphers become irrelevant at the stroke of midnight.

Turing is determined to not be outwitted by a little black box, and he draws up plans for his own machine: the first computer, capable of processing millions of possible keys a day. Unfortunately, his arrogance and impatience alienate him from his co-workers and ultimately threaten to cut short the funding for his world-saving leaps in technology. This is gripping stuff, and Tyldum does a great job of selling the team's frustration.

The narrative gets murky with the introduction of flashbacks within flashbacks; a subplot about Russian espionage; a subplot involving Turing's recruitment of a young woman named Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who eventually becomes his beard; and on and on and on. I don't doubt that these are elements from Turing's story, but they have the cumulative effect of piling on to a central thriller that, frankly, doesn't need any dressing up in order to be entertaining.

Like Alan Turing, The Imitation Game suffers from an identity crisis. On one hand, it's a compelling and adult peek into a chapter of history that's only recently been de-classified. On the other, it's a ham-handed, Look-How-Far-We've-Come message movie about society's relationship with gays and women. This story couldn't exist without those themes, but there has to be a smoother way to integrate them than with the screenplay's obvious, heart-warming smugness. There's no subtlety here, no nuance. Every speech about equality is telegraphed, every moment of a male-chauvinist pig getting embarrassed by the whip-smart duo of Joan and Turing is an eye-rolling non-event. Almost every line that doesn't have to do with defeating Hitler comes off as a polemic against people who wouldn't bother to watch a movie involving English, math, and history to begin with.

Admittedly, part of my problem with the film stems from baggage I brought with me to the screening. A week before, I heard Cumberbatch interviewed on The Nerdist Podcast. In discussing Turing's life, he revealed chilling details that I couldn't wait to see on screen. Tyldum (due to vision, the script, or outside meddling--I don't know) opted to exclude or cut short the intimate themes that underscore unsung hero's unfortunate end. White text on a black screen is a poor substitute for challenging drama, especially when it exists on the same media plane as five minutes of Cumberbatch's truly moving anecdotes.

On a related note, Cumberbatch can play socially awkward geniuses in his sleep, and his turn as Turing showcases the actor's signature wheels-spinning authority. Granted, the role calls for far less venom than that of, say, Sherlock Holmes or Khan Noonien Singh, but there's nothing revelatory here. It seems he's already become an actor who "does his thing", like Nicholson, Pacino, or Tommy Lee Jones. 

Because we're knee-deep in the season where Hollywood pulls out all the stops for what it considers highly intelligent entertainment, The Imitation Game has a lot of competition for audience eyeballs. Though well shot and edited,  finely acted, and beating with the heart of a decent pulse-pounder, there's simply nothing here to recommend it as a big-screen experience. Ironically, by creating an ultra-accessible marquee picture that pulls all the right levers, those behind The Imitation Game have created a nondescript bit of data destined to flit through the annals of cinema history--un-remarked and unremarkable. 

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