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As source for entertainment, few historical events have earned as much coverage as World War II, a campaign of battles on land, at sea, and in the air that stretched to all corners of the globe. It was an unprecedented military conflict that remains one of humanity’s most deadly and yet inspiring moments. And Hollywood has made a bundle on it.
Most films in the genre rightly tend to focus on the heroes of the fight, mostly men, who fought on the shores and in the jungles and deserts, oceans and skies in defense of powerful enemies who threatened the freedoms of those powerless to stop them. From propaganda films starring John Wayne to iconoclastic anti-war films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, the great tragedies and horrors along with tales of courage and survival have made for some of cinema’s most profound movie experiences. War is hell, but its stories are great entertaintment.
Occasionally though, we get a chance to learn about another side of The Great War, that of the people who supported the effort not by picking up a weapon and charging into the fray but by contributing their hearts and minds in other ways, less filled with immediate dangers. Such is the story of Alan Turing, an English cryptanalyst (among other things) who not only is credited with helping to end the war itself, but inventing the gateway to computer science and artificial intelligence itself. And what did you do today?
The Imitation Game is loosely based on the biography of the man by Andrew Hodges and concentrates mostly on Turing’s service at Bletchley Park, the home of the government’s codebreaking offices. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing’s story is told mostly in flashback, revealing much about the man’s troubling attitude and difficulty working with others as he struggles to build a working machine that could break a device called the Enigma, a coding tool used by the Nazis to send messages. Break that and the war is over.
Directed by Morten Tyldum, the film was a modest Box Office success but a huge critical favorite, earning many awards, including an Oscar for its screenplay (and seven other nominations). Praised for its accuracy and performances, the movie is a tense thriller but also an enlightening biography that sheds light on a man of great talents who has unfortunately remained, much like the German device he broke, an enigma. The Imitation Game does best with Turning himself, allowing Cumberbatch to give the man a real sense of place in the history of not just the war but of the times. It’s a remarkable bit of acting that lift the film to even greater heights. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Turning is not an especially likable fellow. He considers the people he works with to be inferior, and at times just in his way, plugging away on this chaotic-looking room-sized machine that he nicknames ‘Christopher.’ When he loses funding for his work, he appeals to Winston Churchill himself and earns not only the money to continue working but named head of the project. That’s some impressive persuasion. Firing some who have not produced, Turing runs an ad in the newspapers to try and find a replacement, using a complicated crossword puzzle as a recruitment tool to lure like minds. From these tests emerges Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a Cambridge graduate who reveals incredible skills but whose parents refuse to let her work with men, so Turing arranges for her to assist in the female clerk’s office where they intercept the actual messages. It’s a sneaky bit of dodging but it works.
The two become close despite the fact that Turing is secretly homesexual and their relationship develops in surprising ways all their own, but before all of that, we see how Turing does little to mend fences or build bridges with the men working with him, a group of intelligent cryptographers who find it difficult to communicate with the socially stunted Turing. Truth is, there’s a lot of animosity and while all respect each other, there’s no love lost. But these codes aren’t going to break themselves.
Leave it to Joan to fix that. She takes Alan to a local pub, a place he is clearly not entirely comfortable with, but her attractiveness and highly-charged personality make her particularly hard to avoid (not to mention her mathematical skills). Sitting alone, they notice the three-man team from Bletchley Park, including Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), arrive for some drinks. They are surprised to see Alan there, but more so with such a beautiful woman. Taken by her presence, Hugh approaches and Joan charms him with a womanly flare that entices and warms the man, getting him to invite them over, something that would never happen without her.
Alan is struck but how easily she won Hugh over, a man who is notoriously cold to Turing (and vice versa), though realizes that she did it on purpose, noting that she “got him to like you.” She explains “yes,” that she is “a woman in a man’s job” and as such “doesn’t have the luxury of being an ass,” which I have to say, is just a sensational line in this or any movie, delivered with some genuine zip by Knightley. Talk about nuance. She’s so good here. And pay attention to what Cumberbatch does with Turing as well, the cutaways to his realization that this woman is ever-so-subtly rounding the corners of a man with whom he has had no good turns with. That little ‘dawning’ moment where he looks down to his left, is pure gold and while it’s played softly as to be nearly missed here, it’s monumentally important, like the bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey taken in the hands of early man, realizing it can be a tool, he comes to understand that words and gestures yield great results as well if delivered with a certain slant.
She goes on to tell him that The Enigma is always going to be smarter and that if he really wishes to crack it, he needs their help, but they will not do so if they don’t like him. She, with just a look, a calculated smile and a few pleasantries, already has started to flip that around. We cut to the next day and now we see the team working on their end of the facility when Turing arrives with a bag of fresh green apples and doles them out one-by-one to the men, explaining in his own stilted way that the gesture is one contrived by Joan to make him seem nicer, and before they can react, Turing goes on to tell a joke about two people in the woods who encounter a bear. The bit is an old one but a funny one, but what Turing does with it is basically make it well, dull, repeating the words robotically with clearly no understanding of the punchline nor the intent, only that it’s supposed to help ingratiate himself with the men. And that it does. That it does.
The gesture is one that proves Turning is capable of personality and by extending an olive branch of sorts to those around him proves, as we soon learn, incredibly valuable when once again his machine is deemed unnecessary. These two back-to-back moments are small in the larger context of the film but enormous in the development of the character and the story. With Joan hinting to him the power of just a little compassion and manipulation, she ends up quite literally responsible for getting Christopher back on track, showing Turing the way in which to get his team to work with him.
Without her, and this minor moment, the film suggests Turning might not have been able to mend the relationships with his team. It’s so subtle that we mostly miss how important her role in it is, but nonetheless, Joan Clark is the codebreaker for Turing, decoding for him the enigmatic methods for reaching out to men who are not entirely like him. What’s interesting is how she comes to later tell him he is responsible for saving millions of lives, and indeed he is, though there is no doubt nearly every single one of them is because of Joan, her apples, and a bear joke. It’s a great cinematic moment.