Alan Turing? Until about 24 hours ago, I hadn't although I unknowingly was quite aware of his ridiculously important historical contributions. How about something called Enigma? Yes? No? No matter how you answered, here's an easy recommendation as the movie awards season jumps into the full swing. History, World War II, just a film fan, check out 2014's The Imitation Game.
It's 1939 and World War II isn't going well for the Allied effort, especially in England as the German Luftwaffe wreaks havoc with its bombing all over the country. British intelligence is working hard behind the scenes, a huge effort meant to crack one of Germany's essentially unbreakable code, the Enigma. A brilliant mathematician and professor, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is working with British intelligence to break Enigma, but the effort seems impossible. There are literally millions and millions and millions of possibilities to break Enigma, and Alan and a small group of cryptanalysts have a limited window each day to break it before they have to start from scratch the next morning when the Enigma settings are changed. Turing especially is confident he can do it, but as the war rages on and the casualties pile up, even Turing's difficult personality may prove to be the biggest roadblock.
Here's another example of how powerful and interesting and truly, downright interesting history can be. Based on a true story -- with some artistic license taken here and there -- and from director Morten Tyldum tells a truly remarkable story, one that the British government kept under wraps for over 50 years after the end of WWII. The soldiers did the fighting, civilians back home built much of the materiel, the politicians fought and negotiated, all of it essential to the war effort. 'Imitation' does a great job of showing how Turing, a single man, drastically changed the course of the war for the Allies. It is a large-scale story in terms of content but small-scale in its focus. This is a movie about Turing and the men and women in intelligence who helped to break Germany's seemingly perfect code, saving millions of lives and cutting years off the war. Oscar bait? Sure, but it's a goodie.
That Benedict Cumberbatch fellow, he seems to be an actor with some potential (besides having a really cool name). Though he's been working in film and television since the early 2000s, he seems to have hit his groove as an actor, able to do fun blockbusters like the Star Trek sequels and as he shows here, act his freaking butt off. What a performance, one that will hopefully earn him an Oscar nomination, if not a win. It's always tough portraying a historical figure, even if it is one without a ton of name recognition. This is a brilliant, tortured man who was years ahead of his field, an individual who developed one of the first computers, one that helped Turing and Co. eventually break Enigma (relative spoiler I guess). The story also takes a personal detour in the second half of the movie, Cumberbatch truly bringing the individual to life.
It's the little nuances that Cumberbatch does so well, so effortlessly. His Turing is a socially awkward, brilliant individual with a troubled background. He commits himself to his work in almost dangerous fashion. It is an entire commitment. He hits people in the wrong way because his Alan is short, curt, abrupt and believes entirely in himself. All negative, right? He adds these little snippets as he tries to put his pride aside (although I wouldn't consider it pride in Alan's eyes, he just thinks he's right) that humanize him. We see that a lot in his scenes with Keira Knightley's Joan Clarke, a similarly brilliant young woman who doesn't get the respect she deserves because she's a woman and obviously can't be good at math. Kudos to Cumberbatch though, delivering a low-key performance that isn't necessarily a huge LOOK AT ME part that nonetheless steals the movie.
The 'Imitation' cast is uniformly solid. The queen of the period piece, Knightley is perfectly at home in the WWII story in providing an ideal counter to Cumberbatch's Alan. Their chemistry is smooth and easy, two individuals with different backgrounds but plenty of common ground. The other individuals working with Turing include an excellent Matthew Goode, Matthew Beard, Allen Leech, and James Northcote. Charles Dance and Mark Strong are very good too as intelligence officials, one more helpful than the other in assisting Turing's seemingly impossible plan to break the code. Rory Kinnear makes a quick appearance in a flash-forward of sorts as we see Turing living in England in the 1950s.
Let's say this. 'Imitation' tries to accomplish a lot. A LOT. The actual story is astounding that this happened. It wasn't a handful of people but thousands, but THIS HAPPENED. The story never feels disjointed which is a big compliment when you consider how much ground is covered, three-plus years is the crux of the story during the WWII portions. It's fascinating watching Turing's early-model computer come to fruition, the frustration when breaking the code doesn't happen both inward and outward, and eventually when it does happen the unintended consequences. Think of this. Okay, they've broken the code. They now CAN'T ADMIT they've both broken it because then the Germans would know they have broken it. What do you do now? How do you put the code to best use without revealing it has been broken? It is those moments where the movie is at its strongest.
So yeah, we've got some good, old-fashioned Oscar bait here. This is a good movie with a fascinating, always interesting story with some great performances. It isn't though, a great movie. When the story reveals a secret part of Alan's life, but it takes away from the power of the WWII/Enigma story. It is a tragic secret that alters Alan's life in a huge way but at times it feels tacked on like the story didn't exactly know how to handle it, especially in the finale. It is a complaint but nothing even remotely being close to a dealbreaker. Still a must-see movie.
The Imitation Game (2014): ***/****