Film Review: The Imitation Game

by Glenn on January 19, 2015

We got to see The Imitation Game last weekend and I really enjoyed it.

Movie poster for The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberpatch and Keira Knightley.

I can’t claim any credentials as a film reviewer but I can recommend this film. There were three aspects of The Imitation Game  I thought were excellent.

THE STORY

At first I was distracted by a title that read, “1951.” I thought I was going to a film about World War 2. What’s going on? Is this Saving Private Ryan where the bulk of the film is a flashback? Not that flashbacks are all bad, after all Casablanca has one, but I didn’t want to see a formula. Fortunately, The Imitation Game is no formula.

I don’t think I need to issue a spoiler alert to say that The Imitation Game tells three stories about Alan Turing from three time frames of his life—childhood at school; World War 2, where Turing and his fellow mathematicians/cryptographers created the machine that broke the Enigma Code; and near the end of his life.

The genius of the storytelling in this film was how the screenwriter, Graham Moore, was able to make a World War 2 film but weave coherently the other two time frames in and out so that we are left with a deeper and more complicated picture of this unsung hero of World War 2 than we would have had the film focused solely on the events of World War 2.

It’s like a musical composition with three separate themes: from Turing’s childhood, friendship and a wound; from World War 2, a victory that made other victories possible (or at least shortened the war); and from the end of Turing’s life, tragedy. Any or all of these themes would be worth exploring, but taken together they create a symphony that is all at once elegiac, triumphant, and heart rendering. It is deeply affecting.

I don’t recall a film that does what this one does. It’s not a film that I’ll want to see again and again, but it was very well done.

In biopics like this, there is always the question of what is actual history and what is dramatic storytelling. There is a sequence of scenes where an insight has been discovered which leads to the cracking of the code which leads to a profound implication for one of the characters in the room. It was a great sequence for heightening drama, which was good for the movie but left me wondering how it all actually played out in, you know, real life. (I may need to read a book.)

THE SCORE

The music was exceptional. Alexandre Desplat composed the score and I enjoyed the energy he created right from the start. Maybe the better word is tension. I didn’t notice this until a scene early on in the World War 2 era where Alan Turing sits down in an office for an interview and the music stops for a moment. The cessation of music is so noticeable and you find yourself taking a breath, unaware that you hadn’t been breathing—at least not deeply.

This is a film about the creation of an early type of computer and there is a quality to the music that is both mechanical/machine-like and electronic that captures the era and moment so well.

I don’t think this is a score I would want to listen to for fun, but it certainly complemented the storytelling and the film very well.

THE SUBTEXT

Alan Turing was a homosexual. One of the things The Imitation Game attempts to do is say something about that. I am one of those Christians whose thoughts and feelings about homosexuality are complicated. And before I say (or even if I say) anything about those thoughts and feelings, I want to say something about the people. I have had gay colleagues, co-workers, clients, and students. Among the things I appreciate about them was that although I knew that fact about them, it wasn’t the thing I knew first or only about them and had nothing to do with their competence, character, or contribution.

I think this is what the film was trying to say. It certainly didn’t feel like the film was making a political statement. The Imitation Game felt both fair to Alan Turing as the central character and to me as an audience member. What seems true is that Alan Turing was a hero of World War 2. And he was gay. The film neither glossed over nor exploited that second fact. The laws have definitely changed since World War 2 and I guess I find myself thinking this is largely a good thing, but I have some more thinking to do on the issue.

The Bible seems clear to me on the issue of homosexuality, but I’m not sure how we as a country should treat those who do not accept the Bible’s authority on this issue for whatever their reason. I believe very much in both the Judeo-Christian heritage of this country as well as a live and let live policy for its citizenry. Further, I don’t feel a lot of confidence in our ability to legislate morality. But, like I said, I have some more thinking to do.

In the meantime, The Imitation Game, was a good film. Engaging. Dramatic. Illuminating. I enjoyed it very much.

Incidentally, the previews were instructive, as it appears the only people acting in major pictures these days are the current and former cast members of Downton Abbey. For me, that’s not all bad.

Review from Christianity Today

I sometimes like to check my impressions of a film with other reviewers, particularly those who write from a Christian point-of-view. I found one (here) by Alissa Wilkinson at Christianity Today.

Wilkinson praised the performance Benedict Cumberpatch gave as Alan Turing. She noted both “Cumberpatch’s knack for voice acting” as well as the physical elements he brought to the role—”mannerisms that mark out Turing as occupying some point on the autism spectrum.” I agree; it was a remarkable performance.

She also offered a couple of critiques of the film. One is that we never really learn how Turing’s code-breaking machine works. She writes,

The Imitation Game is… maddeningly elusive for an audience who isn’t scared off by the idea of computers—how does his machine work, we want to know, but all we see is some wires and a lot of knobs.”

I remember having a thought like that as I watched the film—Why doesn’t he tell people what he’s doing?—but was so caught up in the action that I let it go.

Wilkinson’s second critique mentioned the quotable line of the film that I didn’t find quite as off-putting as she did.

“[The Imitation Game] fails most when it tries to be inspirational: the line ‘Sometimes it’s the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine’ is a little corny but fine, the first time it pops up; by the third time, it’s verging on eye-rolling.”

I think the line didn’t bother me at the time because it wasn’t pithy enough to be said flippantly.

Wilkinson concludes her review with these notes (“Caveat Spectator”) about The Imitation Game:

“The film is rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature themes, and historical smoking. There is no on-screen sex, nudity, or violence except a few punches thrown and historical black-and-white footage of World War II. One character tells a dirty joke at a party, and while the premise of the joke is told off-camera, it’s pretty clear what it’s about. Another character uses a direct anatomical reference to male genitalia. There’s a smattering of profanities. Turing’s homosexuality is discussed, particularly its illegality.”

These notes are helpful and would not have turned me away. In fact, they would have eased my mind going in. I watch fewer movies than I used to and want to be careful about what I put in front of my eyes.

Review from MovieGuide

I also found The Imitation Game reviewed at MovieGuide.org (here).

This review was odd. It wasn’t a film review as much as it was a film rating.

Screen Capture of the rating for The Imitation Game

Screen capture from MovieGuide.com of the rating for The Imitation Game.

The Imitation Game scores a -3 on content. The website identifies this number as an “acceptability rating,” which ranges from the best, “+4 EXEMPLARY:  Biblical, usually Christian, worldview, with no questionable elements whatsoever” down to “-4 ABHORRENT:  Intentional blasphemy, evil, gross immorality, and/or worldview problems.” The -3 rating for The Imitation Game indicates: “EXCESSIVE: Excessive sex, violence, immorality, and/or worldview problems.”

The film received two out of four stars. (I would have given it three.) And there is a chart that indicates a scale on four issues: language, violence, sex, and nudity. I was puzzled why this film, with no nudity, light violence and sex, and moderate language received a -3 (next to worst) on content. If this is -3, where do you go for, say, Horrible Bosses 2? Let’s check (here): MovieGuide gave it two out of four stars and a -4. I haven’t seen Horrible Bosses 2, but I can’t imagine it’s as good a film and only one step more abhorrent. The numbers give the effect of objectivity and mathematical precision, but I’m not so sure.

At the top of the review, a series of acronyms was listed for this film, which I imagine helped to “inform” the acceptability rating for the film:

HH, HoHo, PCPC, Fe, B, P, AbAb, LL, V, S, A, D, M

I had to look these up (here) to understand what they mean.

Abbreviation Definition
HH Strong humanist worldview or humanist elements
HoHo Strong homosexual worldview or homosexual elements1
PCPC Politically correct worldview or elements
Fe Feminist worldview or elements (may be increased to FeFe or FeFeFe)
B Mild or light biblical or moral worldview, principles, perspective, or character
P Patriotic worldview or elements (may be increased to PP or PPP)
AbAb Strong anti-biblical, anti-Christian or anti-Jewish worldview or elements
LL Several obscenities and profanities (10-25)
V Brief or action violence
S Implied adultery, promiscuity, sexual perversion or sexual immorality
A Light, brief or some alcohol use
D Light, brief or some smoking
M Light miscellaneous immorality (gambling, revenge, theft, blackmail, etc.)

1Note: One “Ho” indicates “Light homosexual worldview or homosexuality.” This film is HoHo, defined above. If the homosexual worldview or elements were “very strong” this film would have received a “HoHoHo,” which makes me laugh, probably inappropriately.

Bottom line: I didn’t find this film nearly as objectionable as the reviewer did and I wonder what that means.

It occurs to me that this reviewer was not reviewing the film as a film but examining it for orthodoxy. Which means that the quality of the film had more to do with its content and very little to do with it being a good movie, however we define one. The website says this about its evaluation system:

“Acceptability Ratings are based on a traditional view of the Bible and Christianity. Some movies receive positive ratings because they fit a biblical worldview of ethical monotheism, even though there is little specific Christian content in them. The ultimate evaluation of a movie depends on one’s moral and spiritual values. Those values depend on one’s worldview or total philosophy of life, humanity, the universe, and the supernatural.”

This is fascinating and concerning.

I can appreciate that content has something to do with whether or not a movie is good, but does content exclusively determine the worth of a film? I don’t think so.

Pick a different worldview and and another set of objectionable elements (which is to say, pick a set of elements which someone with a different perspective will find objectionable), and MovieGuide could be the policing standard for a totalitarian regime of one form or another. We could have MovieGuide Iran indicating whether the film had women with heads uncovered or men without beards or MovieGuide North Korea noting FM, FMFM, or FMFMFM for films promoting an incorrect market system (moderate—British-style—free market presence, strong—American-style—free market presence, and severe—Ayn Rand-style—free market presence). But would we know if we had a good film or not?

If orthodoxy is the most important thing, shouldn’t there be some way to establish when a film has gone beyond the pale and simply indicate that from the perspective of the reviewer (or at least the person cataloguing the film’s moral deficiencies), Christians should not watch this or that film? The Imitation Game has a -3, which seems pretty serious. To come up with that rating there had to have been some  documentation going on—how many swear words were there exactly? But if a film is that bad, why bother to review it at all? Tell us the film is unredeemable, or “not okay for Christians to see.”

(I noticed that the reviewer for Horrible Bosses 2 took the time to document “more than 160 obscenities (including 110 or so “f” words), 22 profanities and many graphic sexual references and scatological jokes.” I hope they were paid well for that work. I’m not sure it needed to be done. And I’m grateful it wasn’t me doing it.)

The problem with all of this so far is that we have no indication whether or not The Imitation Game is a good film. By the standards above, a film of a family sitting around the living room while dad reads aloud “The Sermon on the Mount” would have exemplary content (+4) but probably make a terrible movie, while Schindler’s List, which I would argue is a great film, received a -2  on content but four out of four stars for quality (I checked here.)

Enough of this. What does the reviewer actually say about the film? Here goes:

“Strong bleak humanist worldview with no hope or redemption where main character is a homosexual, with politically correct tone, plus some feminist concerns, plus light moral, patriotic values in the main characters desire to end World War II and their resolve to do it through teamwork, but Anti-Christian content as a traitor among the Allies is a Christian and main character says, ‘God didn’t win the war, we did’; four obscenities and 13 profanities; some implied war violence with some bombardment aftermath shown, a man is punched; some vulgar, though vague, sexual references and main character is a homosexual; no nudity; moderate drinking; smoking; and, lying and moral relativism.”

I don’t know. I imagine things were pretty bleak during World War 2. And “no hope“? Wasn’t that the point of the film: The code can be broken; we can do it. As far as “humanist,” yes, I imagine there were many humanists fighting in the war. Thank God they were on our side. I don’t think it’s bad to capture that reality. That line that says “a traitor among the Allies is a Christian” I don’t think is right and shouldn’t be used as evidence that the film is anti-Christian. As I recall, the traitor was a Communist who the Allies knew about and used as a conduit for misinformation.

The writer goes on to say,

The Imitation Game is tragic in more ways than one. Alan Turing undeniably shortened the war and saved millions of lives.”

Uhh, where is the tragedy in there? Isn’t that all good? And the only thing I can conclude is that somehow the reviewer wishes reality wasn’t reality. We, the Christians, have been wronged by history. Alan Turing should have been a monogamous heterosexual who saved civilization and taught Sunday School and it’s tragic that he wasn’t and didn’t. The writer continues,

“Additionally, the movie uses his unfortunate death as a statement for a leftist political agenda. In regards to his homosexuality, the British government wronged Turing in strong-arming him into undergoing chemical castration. Of course, the only real solution for the lust of the flesh and the pride of life is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

This makes my head and heart hurt. How can a conservative Christian complain that the portrayal of Turing’s death was a leftist political statement while declaring that Turing was a victim of government injustice? And to reduce the issue of homosexuality down to that one last sentence is beyond me.

I think a distinction has to be made between the presence of an element in a film and the purpose of an element in a film. For example, there is a difference between a film where a character smokes and a film that glorifies a smoker or smoking. For the reviewer of this film it appears as though the presence alone of something is inherently bad.

And so Alan Turing was gay. I don’t think you can draw any conclusions when you dislocate this from the story. If anything the film shows us it was (and is) a complicated issue. The film makes it quite clear it was illegal at that time. If The Imitation Game engenders some compassion, then good. But it certainly isn’t advocating.

 

 

 

One comment

[…] My thought then I still hold to (see my notes about the film and my first reaction to the reviewer here): the presence of something in a film is not advocacy. For example, a film that includes a surfer […]

by The Imitation Game and what makes a great movie « glennaustin.com on 27 January 2015 at 8:14 am. #