A Tale of Turing: “The Imitation Game”

Sierra Block Gorman, ’16

“The Imitation Game” is a movie about the life of Alan Turing, one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century. He is known as the father of computer science and a pioneer in artificial intelligence. For a long time, the world knew him only as the creator of the Turing machine, a type of early computer, and of the Turing test, one of the most famous tests for artificial intelligence, also known as the imitation game. However, after the cryptology files from World War II were declassified by the British government, the world found out that Turing was not only a genius cryptologist, he was also the man who almost single-handedly turned the course of World War II.

To fully understand just how amazing Turing’s accomplishments were, you have to know a little bit about the cryptology of the time. Cryptology is the study of codes, and the art of writing and solving them. During World War II, the Germans had come up with a new type of encryption, stronger than anything anyone had seen before, that relied on a machine called the Enigma machine to encrypt messages using complicated combinations of shift ciphers and substitutions. It was impossible for anyone to decrypt by hand, even with many people all working together, and the settings for the machine changed at midnight, so the British cryptanalysts had less that 24 hours to figure out the settings for the machine. Due to the lack of intelligence, the British were being beaten badly.

However, in 1939 Turing joined a team of cryptologists and mathematicians devoted to breaking the Enigma code. He came up with a revolutionary new machine called a bombe, that could check thousands upon thousands of combinations of settings in a far shorter amount of time than any human. This machine was one of the earliest computers to use algorithms, and it completely broke open the German naval intelligence network. Using this invention, Turing and his team were able to save countless lives and end the war approximately two years earlier than the projected time frame suggested. It was a decisive factor in the Allied victory.

The movie did a very good job of representing Turing’s work, explaining the problem that needed solving and how he went about solving it, even touching on a few of his other great accomplishments, like the imitation game for which the movie was named. However, this was not just about Turing’s academic work or even his profound effect on the war. There were two other pivotal time periods that the movie addressed: his early education and his eventual arrest. The movie’s portrayal of his childhood was interesting, highlighting his intellectual development, his experience with bullies, his stunted social skills, and his first love. Turing was not a popular or social child, but he fell deeply in love with his best friend Christopher, who first introduced him to cryptology. Tragically, Christopher died of tuberculosis in 1930, taking away Turing’s first true love and one of his only sources of social interaction.

The one part of the movie I had major problems with was their portrayal of Turing’s arrest and death. His conviction was misrepresented and his demise only mentioned in subtitles at the end. Though the movie certainly hit all the right emotional impressions, it did not represent the true tragedy of the prejudiced idiocy that lead to the death of one of the greatest minds of that generation. In real life, Turing was dating a much younger man. One of the young man’s acquaintances broke into and stole from Turing’s house. He reported it to the police, and in doing so, revealed his homosexual relationship. At that time, being gay was illegal in England. Turing was brought in for gross indecency, convicted, and given the choice between prison and chemical castration. Unwilling to give up his work, Turing chose to take the harmful hormonal treatments. These chemicals made Turing obese, lethargic, and depressed, as well as reducing brain function. Turing was fired from his government job for being gay, and prevented from practicing cryptanalysis in an official capacity, despite the fact that they were still using his machines. Eventually, the chemicals and the inability to do the work he was so passionate about drove Turing into a deep depression. He committed suicide via cyanide in 1954, depriving the world of his genius and becoming another victim of the blind and hateful prejudice against homosexuals that was common at the time.

However, in the movie Turing was not dating someone, rather, it was a male prostitute whom he was having sexual relations with, and who also burgled his house. This makes his so-called crimes seem more legitimate, since we no longer think of being gay as a real crime, but prostitution is, and this makes his arrest seem more justified, even though it was nothing but a farce. Additionally, very little screen time was devoted to the debilitating effect the chemicals had on him. As such, we are struck more by how Turing was falling apart than by the cruel and unusual punishment that was being used at the time. Together, these changes seem to take away from the true horror of what the government did to Turing — the same government that took advantage of his intellect to win the war. Even after he died, the government waited half a century before revealing Turing’s true role in ending the war, and it wasn’t until 2013 that Turing was posthumously pardoned for his “crimes.” The movie was great, but it contained the subtle stench of propaganda.

Overall, I really enjoyed this movie. I have been a huge fan of Alan Turing for a long time, and it was supremely gratifying to see him get the recognition he so surely deserves. He was a brilliant but misunderstood man who lead a tragic life, and he was decades ahead of his time. I was in tears by the end. Benedict Cumberbatch did a wonderful job portraying Alan Turing in all his character’s intricacies and eccentricities. I highly recommend this movie to anyone with an interest in mathematics, cryptology, psychology, history, philosophy, gay rights, or Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.

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