I’ve been chomping at the bit for months to see The Imitation Game. It arrived in larger cities well before it appeared here in central Illinois, even being postponed further because the theaters bumped it to show The Interview. Theaters disappoint me with their skewed priorities!
You may have heard the buzz around this movie about British mathematician Alan Turing as played superbly by Benedict Cumberbatch, which is based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film “The Imitation Game”. As a piece of filmmaking, this movie is absolutely spectacular. The elements of the movie– the filming, directing, editing, acting, clothing, the music– all worked together to create a seamless film that engages you from start to finish. I highly recommend going to watch it! Sure, it has mathematicians and computers and no gratuitous sex or violence, but it won’t leave you bored, I promise. It is certain to win some of the awards at upcoming ceremonies.
My super short synopsis: a group of mathematicians are recruited to break a code that the Germans were producing in World War II using their Enigma machine. The code would change daily which made figuring it out each day an impossible chore. Alan Turing wanted to build a machine that would be able to break the code faster, which he and his team ultimately did, resulting in the war shortening by about two years. The movie isn’t perfect, as I doubt very many historically base ones are. One of my favorite places to check up on movies is History vs. Hollywood, which does a level-headed analysis of comparing movies with the historical facts. They have analyzed the facts in The Imitation Game, so I won’t spend time nitpicking the movie in that regards here. There are also numerous articles about the perceived shortcomings of the film on the internet if that interests you, too.
Since I watch movies through my science worldview filter, let’s take a look at my very subjective sense of the film. I made a handy flask rating system for a quick tl;dr.
As I mentioned above, as a film, this movie is near perfection as far as an enjoyable story is concerned. The last portion of the film had a different cadence than the rest of the film because it focused more on Turing’s torment at the end of his life rather than to continuing the focus on the Enigma code breaking project, and did so only at an arm’s length, so that was slightly unsettling to me, however, it wasn’t a devastating distraction, so I felt no need to give the story overall less than 5 flasks!
When it comes to the science and math in the film, there’s no doubt that there is definitely math involved and there are mathematicians portrayed prominently and primarily favorably, albeit with a few jabs at some social awkwardness stereotypes, but nothing offensive, I didn’t think. So, for raising math awareness, I heartily give this movie 5 flasks for that.
Would you come away from this movie knowing more science and math than you did before you came in? Not at all. There was no attempt to explain the science or math, which is probably preferable to a mangled explanation, but still disappointing. We see the characters doing seemingly reasonable calculations and I awarded a partial flask for Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightly) saying “There’s the Euler equation.” while working on some calculations with Turing, though if you didn’t know what that was, you weren’t enlightened about it. I really think they could have taken a few minutes without disturbing the flow of the film to explain how that machine was going to work. (If you are curious, The New York Times has an article that points out Turing’s other contributions not covered in the film.)
Want to know more about the Enigma machine? Check out this Numberphile video”
The last score I awarded the movie is four flasks for the portrayal of women in science/math. Joan Clarke was an integral part of the code breaking team, and her skills were spoken of highly, not merely mentioned. I chose only four flasks because five would go to a movie biopic told as wonderfully and compellingly as this one, but about a woman instead.
Those of us who love science will probably rarely come across a large budget film that portrays science perfectly, but for such a compelling film that at least raises awareness about Turing, Clarke, and mathematics in general, I’m pretty pleased.
You can also learn more about Turing and other technological geniuses in Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, one of my highly recommended books from 2014.