The Imitation Game and what makes a great movie [Updated]

by Glenn on January 27, 2015

I found myself a little bugged the other day. I watched a film, The Imitation Game, that I really enjoyed. Principally it was the story of Alan Turing who, with his team of brainy math and cypher people, cracked the Enigma Code and helped shorten World War 2 by what some historians estimate might have been two years.

I wondered what other Christians thought about the movie. Alissa Wilkinson over at Christianity provided a helpful review (see here) with her thoughts about the great work that Benedict Cumberpatch did acting in this and other films. She also offered some mild critiques of things that she didn’t like. These were also helpful because it’s enlightening to see how others respond to art. Your appreciation for and understanding of film is enhanced this way. I found myself resonating with some things she said and some she didn’t. (“I never thought of that,” or “I don’t think I see it that way.”) No problem.

Wilkinson approached her review as a Christian evaluating a work of art. I think it’s fair to say her conclusion was (as is mine) that this was a good film though not great. It has its flaws, but since we often find what we’re looking for, there is much to recommend it, too, including the outstanding work of Cumberpatch. It was a story worth telling and told well in the medium of film.

Then I read a review from a Christian movie review website that didn’t feel like a review so much as a litany of all the things in The Imitation Game that were unacceptable to the reviewer. In fact, reviewer is probably not the best word. Perhaps list-making moralist is better.

Some of this is good. If you don’t want a film with nudity or profanity, it’s useful to have some warning so there aren’t any surprises when you get to the theater.

This reviewer, though, really seemed to struggle most with the fact that Alan Turing was gay.

To their credit, the film-makers neither glossed over this fact nor tried to make the film a celebration of his lifestyle. Homosexuality was illegal in the time period covered by the film and it seemed like the film operated analogous to the way Turing kept his sexuality largely a secret. The closest to advocacy came at the end of the film as we learned that Turing submitted to chemical castration rather than imprisonment for the crime of a homosexual act. You are left to make your own conclusions about the morality of both Turing’s life and the British government’s treatment of this war hero.

The movie was panned by this website for its supposed leftist ideology.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the reviewer might be homophobic or, at the very least, is not interested in nuance or complexity when it comes to socially divisive issues. Rather than thoughtful engagement with the world it was preaching to the choir. 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 is not necessarily advocating surfing.

Further, the content of a film, which is to say the extent to which we find ourselves in accord with (or at least sympathetic to) the worldview and the morality of the characters has little to do with the quality of a film. There is something wrong with the way this reviewer/website was looking at this film and I’ve been trying to think this through a little bit.

It’s a statistically small sample but I looked at the how this website rated six films:
The Imitation Game (the film that I had just seen);
Horrible Bosses 2 (just popped into my head at the time as another recent release, albeit one that I would never see and which I couldn’t imagine would be rated similarly);
Schindler’s List (another one that popped into my head as an example of a great film with a lot of difficult content);
Tombstone (a favorite film, though maybe not a great one);
Casablanca (my favorite film and a great film); and
Fireproof (a Christian film that is rated very high by this website).

Here is how they are ranked by this Christian movie review website:

film content quality
The Imitation Game -3 2
Horrible Bosses 2 -4 2
Schindler’s List -2 4
Tombstone -3 2
Casablanca +1 4
Fireproof +4 4

There are three aspects to their rating system, the content (defined on the website as an “acceptability rating”), which falls on a scale from +4 to -4, a quality rating out of four stars, and a little chart that I believe ties in to the content/acceptability rating.

The numbers don’t make sense to me. Obviously, on content/acceptability The Imitation Game with a “-3” had a lot of problems for this reviewer. And yet somehow it is more problematic than Schindler’s List, which seems to me has many more things one could find objectionable or at least should be prepared for, notwithstanding the fact that it is a phenomenal film in so many ways—cinematography, story, and music, for starters. But if I had to take a teenager to either The Imitation Game or Schindler’s List, I would elect to go to the former, unless I was teaching a course on the Holocaust and had a lot of time to debrief.

Further, I can’t imagine walking out of the theater after watching The Imitation Game walking into the theater for Horrible Bosses 2 and finding the latter only one notch worse on content, with all of the documented (gratuitous?) language. (The website noted 110 incidences of the “f-word,” which led me to wonder who was sitting there with a score card. More importantly, why? Did this film even need to be reviewed?)  So the acceptability ratings just don’t make sense to me.

Another example, Fireproof looks worse than Tombstone on a chart that shows how much Language, Violence, Sex, and Nudity is in the film.

Screen shot of the ratings for the film, Fireproof.

Screen shot of the ratings for Fireproof

Screen shot of the ratings for Tombstone.

Screen shot of the ratings for Tombstone.

According to this chart, Fireproof is worse than Tombstone but is ranked much higher in terms of its content. Actually it gets the highest rating for acceptability (it’s perfect—completely acceptable), mostly I think because it is a “Christian” movie, the gospel is told in the course of the film. Having seen Tombstone more times than I probably should, I can tell you that a negative rating for content is justified and I don’t understand how the reviewer can claim there is no language, violence, sex, or nudity. There are plenty of mature themes, including drug and alcohol use/abuse.

I do find myself in agreement with this website that Schindler’s List and Casablanca are four-star films (on a scale of four). No question in my mind these films are great. But I don’t see how Fireproof is in the same league, though. And I don’t understand how The Imitation Game, Tombstone, and Horrible Bosses 2 all have the same ranking.

There is a conceit and a deceit that come from suggesting that acceptability of the content in a film for Christians exists on an eight-point (or nine- if “o” is an option) scale.

The conceit comes from using the word “acceptability.” I’m not comfortable with the air of self-righteousness and sanctimony in that word. Our primary posture toward the world and culture should be one of discernment rather than criticism and condescension. We should be sensitive, not scolds.

And there is a deceit in suggesting that “acceptable” content will transform our culture. The idea seems to be “Let’s improve the message in the medium of film to better our world.” Perhaps it’s time for me to go back to my Neil Postman collection and see if I can understand better what he meant when he wrote (translating Marshall McLuhan) “the medium is the message.”

Additionally, I find some irony in the very existence of an “acceptability rating.” If a film has a negative acceptability rating, isn’t that unacceptable? In which case, why are you entertaining unacceptable entertainment?

My purpose isn’t simply to rant, though mission accomplished there. I am pretty frustrated by inconsistent acceptability and quality ratings that imply some sort of objectivity. Underneath the illusion of objectivity and precision, I think the reviews are more simply an indication of how closely the reviewer identifies with the perceived ideology of the film. In this case, it was dismissive.

And so I am thinking through a few questions. How should a Christian relate to films? How do we (or even can we) talk about art in a meaningful way with those outside the faith? How would I manage a Christian movie review site differently?

As Christians we need to be concerned about the 4:23 and 4:8 principles. 4:23 refers to Proverbs, which says,

“Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.” Proverbs 4:23 (NIV)

4:8 is Philippians, where Paul writes,

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8 (NIV)

As Christians we are playing both defense and offense. We admit in the spirit of Proverbs 4:23, one hopes without being smug or hypocritical, that there are things in the world that are harmful to our interior life and it is wise to protect ourselves from those things. And we want, Philippians 4:8 style, to be people who pursue certain kinds of things.

I propose that we ask and answer two questions before we see a film: Is it appropriate? and Is it good?

Is it appropriate?

I prefer the word appropriate over acceptable and suggest that the content of a movie should not be ranked on a scale, but the entire film be placed into one of three categories:


A chart that shows the three levels of appropriateness for Christians.


A film that is “green” means that the content is close to the gospel and/or a Christian worldview; it is edifying for a believer. From my list of films above, Fireproof certainly fits there, but it’s the only one from that list. Honestly, it is a small collection of popular films that fits in this category.

Films in the “red” are not appropriate for someone who wants to live a Christ-centered life as there are things that Scripture says are inappropriate for believers. They are unacceptable and, therefore, are treated as such. I don’t know how exactly you define that. There are probably a number of things to think about. Consider Job, who the Bible indicates “was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” Job said,

“I made a covenant with my eyes
    not to look lustfully at a young woman.” Job 31:1 (NIV)

Can’t we just declare some material as inappropriate for someone wanting to live the Christian life? Moreover, shouldn’t we?

Walking through a bookstore earlier today, I saw a display for the book, 50 Shades of Grey. It looked like it was a tie-in (no pun intended) to the film. I haven’t read the book (though we did glance at a cookbook parody that was pretty funny and gave a pretty good indication what the book was about) and I won’t see the movie. And, really, does anyone writing from the Christian perspective need to see and review this film? (I’m sure someone will have a “Christian” reason to see the film or read the book, but I don’t.)

Does Horrible Bosses 2 need to be reviewed? (I couldn’t find one at the Christianity Today website.) We don’t have to be mean-spirited or arrogant to say, “We are not recommending this film to other believers. We, as Christians, decided we didn’t want to see or review it. We’re not saying it would be a sin to see this movie, but it would be for us. We couldn’t find good enough reasons to see it.”

Between the red and the green are the many films that are going to be “grey.” The content may not be appropriate for someone who wants to have a Christ-centered life and, therefore, the film needs to be approached thoughtfully.

Some time ago I spoke at a men’s retreat. I took an idea from John Eldredge’s book, Epic, and played some clips from films and television shows that spoke to my heart. For example, I used the clip from Apollo 13 where Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) says,

“We’ve never lost an American in space. We’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch. Failure is not an option.”

It’s a pretty inspiring scene from a really good movie that speaks to me of relentless commitment to a good cause. There were other scenes from other films and TV shows: The West Wing illustrating brokenness and friendship; Downton Abbey, forgiveness; Tombstone, courage and friendship; and The Lord of the Rings, taking on the mantle of leadership.

I think the session went fine—the films were a small part of a larger message about our hearts and transformation from the inside out—but a couple of guys talked to me later. They weren’t upset or judgmental, but one pointed out that while the scenes I pulled out had a very strong and positive message, you couldn’t really look to any of those films or TV shows to get a picture of the Christian life. For example, as stunningly beautiful as the cinematography is and how sincerely it captures a friendship, Tombstone is, (I’ll be the first to admit), a rather godless film when taken as a whole. It’s grey at best.

Another guy told me this great parable:

“There once was a dad who grew tired of his kids saying, ‘We went to such and such movie. It was fantastic. Well, there was that one scene, but the rest of it was great.’ To teach his kids a lesson, he baked some brownies. His kids were very excited and the dad said, ‘These brownies are great. You’re going to love them. There’s just one problem. I also baked in a little dog poop. Not very much. Just a little bit. Most of the brownies are great, though. I think you’ll enjoy them.'”

Mercifully, I grew up outside a legalistic church culture where movies were sinful, but I fear at times I’ve let the pendulum swing too far the other direction, from movies are bad to an unholy permissiveness that neglects discernment.

It is a Christian journalist’s responsibility to warn potential viewers about material that may disturb them. Here is what Wilkinson included at the end of her article:

“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.”

Here is how this other movie review documented the content of the film:

“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.”

Isn’t it a little ironic to document relentlessly all the ways a film has failed to meet your standards (or at least conflicts with your world view)? In other words, if this film is below your standards, why did you watch it?

The rating system already in place gives you important clues as to the appropriateness of a film. I know people who, as a rule, don’t see R-rated films, The Passion of the Christ and Schindler’s List exceptions that prove the rule. And I know I have in recent years been more discriminating and have removed some films off my shelf—for example, Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love, both of which I consider really good films about an historical era that interests me, but neither of which are good for me—a little bit like those brownies in the parable.

I think it’s fair to say that the rating system has changed over time. For example, here are some R-rated films that were among the top-25 money makers in 1992:
Lethal Weapon 3
A Few Good Men
The Bodyguard
Patriot Games
I’ve seen all these movies. There is no question in my mind that these films would be rated PG-13 today. (Or perhaps they would add some elements to ensure they got an R-rating today.) Participating in our culture requires more discernment than ever.

Here’s the problem, though, for Christians. It’s not enough to be discerning and say, “That film teaches the gospel. Go see it,” or “That film isn’t offensive so it’s okay to see it.” We’re playing defense when we ask Is it appropriate? After we ask that question, we need to ask another one.

Is it good?

A film with content that is “acceptable” to us isn’t necessarily a film we should see. Content may be related to but is certainly not determinative of quality. After we ask if a film is appropriate we need to go on the offense and ask Is it good? Actually, not just good. With Paul’s admonition from Philippians 4:8 in mind, I think we are on the lookout for the true, the beautiful, and the good.

A film is a work of art. Having written that statement, I realize I have a lot of work ahead learning to understand better all that implies. But here is how I think about it today.

Let’s say you read the gospels and find that the story of Jesus telling the parable of the good Samaritan speaks to you. You want it to speak to others, so you decide you’re going to make a short film: “Jesus and the Parable of the Good Samaritan.” You don’t have a big budget and so filming in the holy land is out. And you’re creative so you want to say something about the timelessness of this message. You decide to make Jesus a hipster and instead of talking with a teacher of the law, Jesus talks to an art student and his friends in a coffee shop.

Long story short. The film comes out and now you are the Christian media person tasked with reviewing the film. On content this film is “completely acceptable.” It’s a “+4.” You can’t have better content—after all this is Jesus teaching from the gospels. You’re excited about this short film because this is what you hope every movie would do—preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Isn’t this exactly what our culture needs? And so you give it four stars (out of four possible).  How could you give it less? I mean, this is a film about the Son of God. To make a point you declare that this is an “important” film and that everyone should see it.

But should they? Is it a good film?

I mentioned a deceit earlier that comes from weighting a film’s quality based on it’s content. And I quoted a smart cultural observer—Neil Postman, who described his work as media ecology—who said, “The medium is the message.”

The story that Jesus told is a very different story when captured on film. All of a sudden you realize this “important” film has major problems representing the true, the beautiful, and the good. Let’s be honest, a great cinematographer wasn’t available and high-end equipment wasn’t affordable and the score, while okay, sounds a little garage-bandy (It certainly isn’t a John Williams masterpiece with a theme like the one from Schindler’s List that nearly made you weep when it came on the radio as you drove home from the bookstore.) and bringing the story into modern life is problematic.

Because we are no longer simply reading the story of Jesus teaching this parable and have attempted to translate it into the medium of film, some unintended consequences have happened as other people have watched the film.

One viewer, a man, finds himself attracted to the young lady portraying a female art student who is in the scene. (She is the recently married friend of the director.) The shirt she is wearing is modest, but it shows off her figure and she is, as the expression goes, “easy on the eyes.” There is this one moment when she laughs. That’s the moment he fell in love.

Another viewer, a pastor, can’t get past this idea of a hipster Jesus. His reading of the gospels, colored by Isaiah 53, tells him Jesus wasn’t all that cool. He had an authority that didn’t come from cultural relevance.

A young lady, from a very conservative background, noticed that one of the art students in the scene wasn’t drinking coffee but had a beer (it was one of those new coffee places that serve alcohol, too). For her alcohol is a sin and she was troubled by this Jesus movie that showed someone drinking.

We could go on. There was nothing wrong with the content of the film. But because it is a film, it is a completely different experience than, say, reading the Bible or hearing a sermon. Better? Worse? I don’t know. But definitely different. Images aren’t arguments and can’t be argued against. And this all plays in to rating the quality of the film.


Two questions I want to think about as I engage, as a Christian, in my culture:

Is it appropriate?

Is it good?

 Updated: 3 February 2015