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Review by Nate Douglas
One of the forte subjects of the famous French philosopher Rene Girard is mimetic desire – that is, mankind as a species adept at imitation. In fact, imitation is our chief means to learning. But when imitating, humans also imitate other’s desires, which conclusively leads to desiring the same things. Girard refers to this negative rivalry as mimeses.
Both elements are on display in the aptly named The Imitation Game: the story of Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant but gauche British mathematician in the midst of WWII. The narrative begins, however, in the 1950s, when Turing was a university professor and had a break-in at his home, but nothing was stolen. Whilst this scene is being set, it is overlaid with a monologue by Cumberbatch’s single malt tones exhorting the viewer to "pay close attention" to what was about to unfold. The story then goes to WWII, where Turing is recruited to join a team of Britain’s best to crack Enigma, a machine that generates a new code daily which encrypts Nazi communications, whose gibberish was available for Europe to hear, but impossible to discern. Turing quickly determined, much to the skepticism and even disdain of his colleagues, that only a machine could crack the code at the speed required. Despite sharing the same goal, it was quickly a mimetic rivalry of Turing vs. his team and even his government official overseers. Turing recruiting a female crossword-connoisseur (Keira Knightley) helped to bridge the dysfunction, as the team finally threw itself behind the machine (what would be the world’s first computer) – a process which took a couple years.
During this process, the narrative is separated and dotted with more flashbacks to Turing’s childhood in boarding school, where he became close friends with a boy, Christopher, who introduced him to cyphers, as well as flashforwards to the “present day” in the 1950s, as a detective investigates Turing’s “break-in”. These appear for a while to be trivial and insignificant, until towards the end of the film with the reveal that Turing is a homosexual. The young Alan develops an affection for Christopher, who fails to return from Christmas break after dying from an illness which was unknown to Alan. In the 1950s, upon further investigation, a detective discovers Turing’s secret. At this time in Britain, homosexual behavior among men was a criminal offense via the “Buggery Act” of 1533, and was initially punished by death (homosexuality would not become decriminalized in England until 1967).
The machine (which Turing called “Christopher”) did not work, and would run constantly for months bearing no fruit, until a way to simplify the process and reach a solution was finally arrived via the clichéd casual bar conversation “Eureka!” moment. Immediately upon cracking the code, Turing determined they could not tell anyone they had successfully imitated Enigma for fear of alerting the Nazis, but rather should act judiciously upon the information. It was at this time, Turing (a vocal agnostic) as the narrator triumphantly bragged to the audience that he was God. It was he, after studying the data, who decided who ultimately lived (operations they wanted to save or intervene) and those who died (those they would let slip).
After the detective arrests Turing for “indecency”, we quickly discover that Turing staged the burglary so that he could talk to somebody, anybody, about his story. Upon telling the detective about Enigma (which was classified), Christopher, and winning the war (experts estimated Turing shortened the war by two years, and saved millions of lives), a tearful and dejected Turing looked up and asked the detective, “How would you judge me?”
Memetic rivalry does not limit itself to petty quarrels. Expanded, it becomes violent and leads to conflict and wars. These in themselves would threaten the existence of mankind if left to themselves. Enter: The Biblical scapegoat. Girard says, "The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable. The range of objects capable of satisfying the appetite for violence enlarges proportionally to the intensity of the anger. The effectiveness of sacrificial substitutions is increased when many individual scandals come together against one and the same victim. Scapegoat phenomena, therefore, continue to play a definite role in our world at the level of individuals and communities, but they are scarcely studied as such."[i]
Alan Turing was tried and convicted of sexual indecency, and was given the choice of life in prison, or an emasculating medication, and Turing opted for the latter that he might be near his computer, Christopher. The medications lead to Turing’s suicide in 1954 at the age of 41.
The savior of Great Britain was killed by those whom he had saved. Killing a savior, taking something and turning it on its head, is one of a few things that The Imitation Game did well. The man who boasted of his deification-- judging who lived and died-- fabricated a crime so that he might be judged by someone else (the judgment was ultimately death). It’s a tragic and devastating story – but not a complete or excellently told one, as the script was by far the weakest element of the film.
As one who is unfamiliar with “the real story”, it would appear Keira Knightley’s character was a fabrication, as she was weak and merely used as a plot tool, and less like a foil to Turing. Moves like this were presented to attract a wide audience. The very first intercept successfully decoded was intel about a German ambush upon an Allied convey in the Atlantic, which contained a brother of one of the code-breakers – as if the viewer would not already understand the gravity of the situation and what was at stake. Other scenes appeared as if the Wooden-Dialogue Generator was being used in full-force, and the opening monologue set a lofty expectation demanding rapt attention, only to leave the audience with no riddle to solve, no clues to unpack, or little intellect stretched.
The Imitation Game clearly suffers from PG-13ification – intentionally neutering the story to draw a larger audience. While that may have been by design, as the makers merely hoped to tell the story of a previously unknown and unsung hero to the populous in an emotionally effective way, it compromised in quality and completeness to the point where it does not justify the award buzz the film has generated.
[i] Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pg. 158.