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Must the Different Suffer? A Review of “The Imitation Game”

The Imitation Game didn’t strike me as the kind of movie that would capture a large audience. So I was surprised to find that, even though the movie opened weeks ago, every showing on the evening I went to see it was sold out! And now I can see why. This is a great movie, on many levels!

The movie tells the fascinating, and ultimately tragic, story of Alan Turing, brilliantly played by Benedict Cumberbatch (who even resembles the real-life Turing). I’ve always been fascinated with Turing, the eccentric mathematical genius who cracked the allegedly unbreakable Nazi coding device (called “Enigma”) by creating his own mind-bogglingly complex and completely novel code-cracking machine. Among other things, the revolutionary “Turing Machine” became the prototype of the modern computer and first introduced the concept of Artificial Intelligence into the world.

Though I had read quite a bit about Turing, I learned some things from this fact-based movie. I didn’t know, for example, that Britain kept Germany from figuring out they had cracked their code by using it very selectively and leaking false sources of information to explain how they and their allies anticipated crucial Nazi invasions. And they relied on Turing and his team of mathematicians to calculate which Nazi attacks they should preempt and which they should allow, with the result that Turing and his team had to “play God” by deciding who would live and who would die. Historians claim this device shorted the war by at least two years and saved up to 14 million lives.

Part of what makes this movie great is that it hits on so many conflicting levels. For example, the movie has many humorous moments that play off of Turing’s complete inability to pick up on social cues, understand metaphors and jokes, and comprehend illogical feelings. But these humorous moments are bittersweet because they’re part of a larger story about how atypical people like Turing often suffer in isolation from, and at the hands of, the “normal” world.

Along the same lines, the story is beautiful inasmuch as it illustrates how it’s often people who are rejected by “normal” people who end up doing great things for the very people who rejected them. Several times we hear the quote: “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” But this too is bittersweet. Because the Turing machine had to be kept secret, even after the war, no one other than his team ever learns of his accomplishments, so he continues to live as an isolated reject. Intensifying his isolation is the fact that Turing was gay at a time when homosexuality was considered a crime. The movie poignantly conveys the pain of a man who longed to be known and loved, but whose genius and sexual orientation ensured this would never happen. And the movie powerfully communicates the truth that a life lived under these excruciating conditions is literally unlivable.

The final thing I’ll say is that part of what made this movie great is that it raises so many excellent questions, some of which are: Why do people turn on people who are different from them? Are humans destined to “play God” by deciding who lives and who dies? How much should logic verses feelings play into that decision? Why do people enjoy violence? What is the difference between humans and machines? And, more particularly, can machines ever be made to “think”? Perhaps most importantly, will “normal” society ever be able to “think” and to thereby stop giving in to irrational impulses to persecute those who deviate from its norm?

The movie is well-acted, funny, sad, thought-provoking and true. What more could you ever ask of a movie?

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