In 2011, Channel 4 in the UK aired a documentary called Codebreaker, now on Netflix Watch Instant, about Alan Mathison Turing, a mathematician and professor who died in 1954 at the age of 41. Turing was known as the man who designed the basic concept or machine that would become the digital computer. He also theorized in academic papers he wrote about what would become known as artificial intelligence. In fact, his most popular writing was an essay titled "The Imitation Game," which laid out a test, now called the Turing test, that can prove if a computing machine, or digital computer, has artificial intelligence.
The Channel 4 documentary also talked about Turing's involvement in World War II. The British government classified Turing's role, but it has since been revealed that Turing was crucial, if not key, in defeating the Nazi forces in Germany.
England was having trouble fighting the German U-boats. England could intercept messages to the U-boats from Germany, but all the messages were encrypted with a code. England learned the Germans used a device called the Enigma Machine to make that code. England had stolen an Enigma Machine but needed Turing to figure it out.
Written by Graham Moore and directed by Morten Tyldum, the thrust of this movie focuses on this time from 1939 to 1945 when Turing worked for the government on cracking the code and helping with the war. While this dramatic narrative isn't as detailed as the documentary in explaining all that Turing did and how he did it, what the movie does focus on, it does so absolutely fantastically.
It all starts with the great performance of Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Alan Turing from the age of 27 until the last few years of his life. Turing designed the fundamentals for the computer. His personality at times seems like one. He can be logical and cold. He can be anti-social or more awkward in group settings. The arc of his character is for him to learn to be warmer and more social.
Moore's dialogue to that effect and scene constructions ring and have a rhythm that is smartly melodic. This is especially so in Cumberbatch's first scene with Charles Dance (Bleak House and Game of Thrones) who plays Commander Denniston. The words and the scene move at a great beat that is witty, funny and pulls you into it as entertainment but also in laying down a relationship-dynamic that becomes a crux in the film.
Moore brilliantly introduces subsequent and supporting characters with great aplomb. Turing is sent to Bletchley Park, a mansion and 50-acre estate just northwest of London that the government bought for covert activities. Turing was sent there to work on code-breaking, but Turing doesn't work alone. He has a team. Each member of that team, and each actor, are given space to establish and endear us to them.
Keira Knightley co-stars as Joan Clarke, a math genius and practical puzzle-solver who proves she's a perfect match for Turing's intellect but has the added burden of being a woman in a time period that still only valued women in certain places and in only lesser positions like secretarial work.
Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and John Carter) plays Stewart Menzies, the MI6 agent who monitors Bletchley Park's activities and becomes an interesting man in the shadows. Matthew Goode (Match Point and A Single Man) plays Hugh Alexander, a chess champion who is put-off and possibly resents Turing for his leadership position. Matthew Beard (An Education and One Day) plays Peter Twinn, a mathematician who might not have a lot of muscle or the bravery of his brother who is deployed as a soldier, but he's just as dedicated to winning the war.
Tyldum's job is certainly a mighty one. How does one make a movie about a bunch of nerds sitting around doing math and trying to decrypt German messages exciting? Moore's snappy lines help tremendously and the fact that Moore's script delves into some very interesting drama and moral quandaries in the back half ratchet the tension considerably.
Tyldum, however, is able to make code-breaking genuinely exciting, particularly in the climactic moment, which was honestly thrilling and exuberant in a way. This was probably more a product of Moore's script, but the way the film inter-cuts between several time periods is effective as well.
Again, the thrust of this movie is at Bletchley Park, but there are two other crucial time periods in Turing's life. One was the events in the early 1950's in Manchester in northern England, which led to Turing being arrested. The other was the few years in the late 1920's when Turing was a teenager attending Sherborne School along the southwest coast of England. This film cuts back-and-forth to the events of Manchester and Sherborne. Both events are important because they pivot around Turing's life as a gay man.
Some criticisms of this film is that it's not gay enough, either meaning it doesn't depict Turing expressing his homosexuality on screen, not necessarily through graphic or even slightly intimate scenes with men but through any action at all, or meaning through the homophobic politics of the country at large and Turing's reactions to them not gelling. These criticisms make no sense to me. I agree that like a stage play, most of Turing's gay life is a product of dialogue that tells rather than shows, but for a film that should be prided for its dialogue and whose focus is more on the war, I would expect nothing less.
We hear Turing talk openly about where gay penises go and we see Turing fall in love with a boy named Christopher, a love he carries with him to his final days. Perhaps, another film could be made of Turing's sex life and the punishment that ultimately led to his death, which is presumed suicide, but that's not the focus of this one. This film does convey homophobia as much as it is needed.
Two interesting scenes where Turing talks to the detective investigating him for being a spy after he's arrested do a great job of this. The first scene has Cumberbatch deliver a speech that explains the film's title, yet makes it not a proof of artificial intelligence but instead a question of Turing's own identity in light of the inherent homophobia. The second scene has Turing revealing a secret about himself, not the gay one, as the film flashes back and has a secret about someone else revealed to Turing.
It's a great contrast because Turing's reaction in the flashback is again a haunting example of the effects of homophobia. It makes clear the fear and pain that Turing held inside for all his life. It's a powerful moment in a powerful film.
Five Stars out of Five. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking. Running Time: 1 hr. and 54 mins.