Friday, February 13, 2015

"The Imitation Game"

     It's pretty much what we know as the "Turing Test:" stick an intelligent something on the far end of a teletype circuit and try to figure out if it's man or machine.

     It's also the title of an excellent film about Alan Turing, mostly his wartime experience at Bletchley Park and postwar conviction and suicide.

     Turing's rehabilitation in recent years has been helped by the issue that ruined things for him currently being fashionable, but make no mistake: sure, he was gay, but ignore that and the man was still an oddball.

     A genius oddball and there's the real point: growing up, I got to hang around with computer geeks back when you had to walk over to a terminal room and log on the mainframe and they all knew who Turing was: a computer pioneer.  They knew all manner of interesting notions he'd put forward but you had to dig to learn how come he wasn't still around.  The geeks didn't give a hang for his sex life and even with lingering wartime secrecy, they all knew he was one of the guys who got the whole "computer" thing rolling, one of the first people people who really grasped that all you needed was a machine that could precisely do simple operations rapidly, over and over, and you could get it to do anything computable, which turns out to be just about everything.

     Just like many of the gang in the terminal room, he was awkward, impatient with fools, insightful, logical and intuitive.  That's the fellow you'll meet if you go see The Imitation Game.

    Benedict Cumberbatch does not look very much like Alan Turing -- and it doesn't make any difference; he steps into the character completely and from the first time he shows up on the screen, you're not looking at the guy who plays Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV series, you seeing Alan Turing.  It helps that all the little details in the film are as right as they can be.  (The electromechanical decryption machine -- not Colossus -- used to read Enigma messages has been slightly rescaled for greater drama, but the components are right).

     It's a good story, well-told.  A bit complex -- at points, there are three timelines running and you do have to keep up -- but worth the effort.

     Turing's story -- all of it, not just the made-for-tabloids ending but his real and valuable contributions to the bit-counting widgets inside everything these days -- deserves wider telling.  The geeks never forgot him and with good reason.

     ETA: New Yorker had an interesting review of the film, which addresses some of the ways in which the real story was telescoped for the screen and points up a few cultural false notes.  Notably, the cinematic scene of exuberant celebration that punctuates the definitive cracking of Engima not only didn't happen, it simply would not have happened in 1940s Britain, not with that group (and generally, class) of persons.  --Historical storytelling can at times be the art of telling truth by means of lies, of making the past decodable to the present; any time you point a camera at a subject, especially at some remove in time or place, you're faced with a series of choices about what to include, what to leave out -- and what to translate.  With the pressure of time (decryption efforts at Bletchley Park having lasted a bit longer than a two-hour film) as well, you're going to get the occasional off note, a sharpening of drama, a narrowed view, a re-coding for the viewer.  Given the subject and his work, it seems fitting.

13 comments:

docjim505 said...

Thank you for this review. I shall have to go see the movie.

Turing's rehabilitation in recent years has been helped by the issue that ruined things for him currently being fashionable, but make no mistake: sure, he was gay, but ignore that and the man was still an oddball.

A genius oddball and there's the real point...

That he was persecuted for being gay underscores just how stupid "[insert minority here]phobia" can be (and usually is). I am reminded of a line from a sci-fi novel I really enjoy, The Proteus Operation by James Hogan. A nazi intelligence officer in 1939 or 1940 is looking at some photos of a White House meeting between FDR and (IIRC) Einstein and some other famous physicists, many of whom were Jews who'd fled Germany and Italy:

[paraphrase] "I'm not sure that we're not making a mistake, driving people like that out."

Indeed.

Dr.D said...

This is the first movie I have seen in about 15 years, and it was really excellent. I'd go to another it there were any that good.

Turing suffered from being way, way smarter than anyone else around him. He did not explain himself to them, and they simply either ignored him or ridiculed him. It is difficult for people that smart to relate to the rest of us. We lose as a result.

Glenn Kelley said...

That was a time when you would get your knuckles rapped or worse for using your left hand , especially to write . Conformity without reason .

Able said...

“exuberant celebration that punctuates the definitive cracking of Engima not only didn't happen, it simply would not have happened in 1940s Britain”

What? Are you saying we don't know how to have a good time?

One of my (eclectic) group of drinkers grandmother was at Bletchley Park, and according to her the 'celebration' was more along the lines of 'restrained' nods, mumbled 'I say, well done's' and the sanctioning of biscuits with the ever present tea (which culturally equates to bouncing up and down, tearful cheering and a ticker-tape parade in America).

We're (even still) a restrained bunch over here, stiff upper-lip dontcha know, what! (It pays to be restrained when even the local grannies are all former SIS operatives after all).

Two nations divided by a common language, and significant cultural differences. It does illustrate the difficulties in producing material for both I suppose (and that's not even mentioning terminology, the number of American men who admit to wearing suspenders in public, the confusion of many a Brit traveller on attempting to obtain a prophylactic (Durex) only to be given a roll of Selotape – do it yourself?, and just don't ask about the looks you get when you say you're 'just nipping out for a quick fag' …). It's all a bit of, as we like to call it over here, a spanner.

Glen Filthie said...

Oh stuff it, Jim. My daughter is gay, I have seen homosexuality up close and personal...and trust me on this - most queers are 'oddballs' through and through! Whitewashing the sexually disturbed is like polishing a turd and I will leave that to the liberals and stupid people.

Genius goes hand in hand with mental illness quite often. I wonder why people amazed by that because really...we see it all the time.

Roberta X said...

Glen, among mature adults, common courtesy causes them to refrain from the use of "fighting words." You're certainly entitled to your own opinion but either express it politely or be silent.

I'm not sure about your sample size nor your abilities in statistics and/or mental health. In my career, I have worked with many homosexual persons and while some of them were indeed odd, others were dull and (in all other ways) conventional. Even now, the social stigma of being "different" in that way is sufficient to skew the sample: we tend to assume anyone whose affectional inclinations are not obvious to be heterosexual.

Anonymous said...

My memory may be hazy but I remember reading a long time ago that the first people to begin cracking enigma were a pair of polish mathematicians and that the UK had to carry out a rather complicated extraction of the two as they were still in Poland as Germany invaded. The two poles went on to work at what became GCHQ for the rest of the war, I think.

I wish I could remember what book I read it in.

I haven't seen the movie but it's very much on my list.

Terry

Ian Argent said...

Any book on Enigma ought to cover the foundational work the Poles did.

Roberta X said...

Your memory is better than you credit it -- the Poles were indeed in the forefront of reading Enigma traffic.

Old NFO said...

Turing was the protogeek, long before it was fashionable... And he didn't deal well with anyone that wasn't as dedicated as he was. Ironically, they just found some of his original writings stuffed in the old building at Bletchly Park to stop the cold!

Don Meaker said...

Alan Turning who laid the underpinnings of the computer, and Rudolf Diesel both killed themselves.

So inadequate are our feelings for the guidance of a modern life.

docjim505 said...

Glen Filthie - most queers are 'oddballs' through and through! Whitewashing the sexually disturbed is like polishing a turd and I will leave that to the liberals and stupid people.

I personally know only a handful of homosexuals (at least, that I KNOW are gay), so I'm hardly an expert, but aside from their sexual orientations, I don't know anything "oddball" about them. Quite the contrary, in fact: they seem quite normal people to me.

As for "polishing the turd"... if by that you mean not being a jerk to people because of their sexual preference, not falling into a shivering fit when I meet one, and trying to give them the same breaks and basic respect as I try to give to anybody, then give me a bag full of rags and an industrial-sized can of Brasso, 'cuz I hope to be polishing for the rest of my life.

markm said...

Glen is suffering from selection bias. He thinks none of the "normal" people he knows are gay because any gays among them pick up on his attitude and don't tell him. So it's just those too disturbed to leave their sexuality out of a conversation that he knows are gay.