In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)
“Are you paying attention?”
After a bout of regular movie-going preview fare: poor Paddington bear being subjected to idiotic stunts and buffoonish mishaps; some robot threatening all of civilization and Hugh Jackman; and several hundred explosions caused by unidentified killing machines and American movie-going audiences’ incessant desire for brainless spectacle, Morten Tyldum’s moving, yet ultimately unsatisfying, The Imitation Game begins with the refreshing command for all of us to pay attention. After the barrage upon our senses of crass explosions and relentless moronic activity, the opening of the film is a palate-cleansing dose of subtlety, promising more mental activity than physical, and nary a single killer robot to be seen.
Yet, like a gangly teenager trying to Lindy Hop, the film’s footing falls askew from the very beginning. In a move that feels a little heavy-handed, we, the audience are put in the place of the sympathetic police investigator (Rory Kinnear), and commanded to listen carefully, and not to judge until the end. It’s over-used rhetoric, and registers as a little pompous and stilted. From the very beginning, there is a ring of self-importance to the film. Already, a division has been set up: we are to watch, observe, listen, and not interrupt. We stand outside of the story, outside of—to borrow the title phrase from an essay by C.S. Lewis—this “Inner Ring.”
In this essay, Lewis discusses mankind’s fascination with the small group of people who are really calling the shots; really making the decisions; sending out life or death sentences. We are fascinated with the idea of a secret, hidden few who are really in charge, and more than Cumberbatch’s fascinating (when is Benedict Cumberbatch not fascinating to watch?), but (dare I say it?) rather hackneyed portrayal of a socially maladroit genius, it is this air of falsity, this sense of secrecy that was, I found, the facet of The Imitation Game that captured me the most. In the film, we see this inner ring most poignantly depicted in the scenes in which the our little troupe of code-crackers decides which messages from Enigma to act upon, and which to ignore. In reality, these decisions were made by higher authorities in the British army, and thank God for that. What person would want their fate in the hands of a high-functioning mathematical genius and his merry men: the womanizer, the spy, and the boyish-silent-one with all the authoritative presence of a summer intern?
But what the film suggests is the troubling lie that we are all very susceptible to swallowing: that having superior knowledge and superior intellect gives those in possession of them the ability to make right moral judgments. There is very little questioning of the moral system set up by the film that ‘because this person knows more than I,’ he cannot be wrong.
The two moments in the film that were most deeply moving were, firstly, of course, the ending, in which Turing’s body has been reduced to a shaking shell by his court-mandated hormone treatment. His mental acumen is hidden inside a chemically castrated walking corpse, and any human with a shred of empathy will be moved by the film’s short, tragic coda.
The second was when poor Peter (Matthew Beard, oozing incompetent, doe-eyed chutzpah as the token boyish protégé in our motley code-cracking crew) learns that his brother is on a ship about to be taken down by a team of German U-Boats. Having just cracked Enigma, the Hut 8 team could, if acting in the next few minutes, save the lives of everyone on the ship. But just when they are about to dial up whichever commanding officer has the power to save these poor unfortunate souls. . .
Stop! commands Benedict Cumberbatch, authoritatively. He’s right, chirps up Keira Knightley, with a glimmer of understanding in her eye. They cannot save this convoy of ships, as the Germans would then know that they had cracked Enigma (excellent cinematography covers up a multitude of leaps of logic). They must bide their time, and let the people on board perish, for the sake of the greater good—for the sake of winning the war. Peter naturally tries to reach the phone to dial an authority who could save his brother, and he has to be physically restrained by the others. It is a rather violent moment, as though the violence they inflict on Peter is a physical manifestation of the violence being inflicted on innocent people a thousand miles away.
As I watched Peter cry over the inevitable loss of his beloved older brother, I found myself somewhat alienated from the film, which glosses over his loss with a noble shrug. Peter is (quite understandably and justifiably) angry at Alan for several scenes afterwards. In response to these snubs and cold-shoulders, Alan assumes a pained, sympathetic, “oh my dear lad, you’ll understand when you’re older” expression in reaction to Peter’s angered hurt. Peter’s loss, the loss of those lives, is simply the collateral damage of a Greater Mission to be carried out by the few who Truly Know.
What troubled me most about this moment is that the film decidedly and unquestioningly sides with Alan. Yet, the majority of human beings would naturally, instinctively, act as Peter would, throwing all concern for a theoretical, vague, long-term plan out the window in the momentary demand for action. While maybe not technically the smartest or best-calculated course of action, in moments when a person’s life is in danger, our hearts usually trump the “wisdom” of our heads. The pressing need of the moment to save lives in danger—and a family member’s life, no less—outweighs a yet non-existent goal to be achieved. But the film does not even cast a critical glance at the Turing’s decision in that moment.
This trial of Peter’s mirrors the ending scene of the film. It was, like that final scene, one of the most human moments of the entire biopic: a human in pain, wrestling with the fact that he is quite helpless under the unjust lot dealt to him by those in authority. It is a moment full of pathos, and it ought to break your heart. But, because Peter is not extraordinary, his input does not carry as much weight as Alan’s. Because Peter is not brilliant, but (comparatively) simple, because he feels ordinary human emotions, because he is the rule, not the exception, because he is not a part of the brilliant inner ring, his desired course of action must somehow be wrong. On the other hand, because Alan is the smartest one amongst us, he must be the wisest. He can do no wrong. Of course his actions must be the right course of action, because he is smarter than you are.
Are you paying attention?
This leap of logic is one that we make every single day. Often, we struggle to believe that someone we think of as honorable or good could ever do something wrong, based solely on the fact that we have known them to be honorable or good. In our desire for consistency, we are loathe to acknowledge that human beings act inconsistently. It is more pleasant to imagine that all geniuses are benevolent than to acknowledge that many times human beings who have the most power and the most knowledge can truly act the most selfishly. Or, an even more subtle distinction: a person can be a truly unselfish person, but can act in a selfish manner. None of us are immune from character flaws, and even those of us with sterling characters and golden pedigrees can make wrong decisions.
Despite the excellent acting, the beautiful production values, and the well-paced action, what I found to be ultimately frustrating and unsatisfying about the story is that many of the historical facts—which are (like most of real life) more nuanced, more complicated, and more interesting than slick Hollywood clichés—are eschewed for the sake of a rather well-trodden plot structure: Solitary Outsider Has Knowledge No One Else Has. Uses It To Save World. World Turns on Him. Nobody Understands Him.
It seems as though, perhaps, the producers and writers were dumbing things down for us—the audience—those of us outsiders who will just never understand. Thus, the movie was, I found, ultimately somewhat alienating. Instead of wrestling with the humanity of an eccentric, lively, and witty mathematical genius—an ordinary man, who happened to be equipped with an extraordinary mind—Benedict Cumberbatch re-creates his Sherlock schtick of a man rendered incapable of feeling and thinking like the rest of humanity by virtue of his god-like mental ability, thereby creating an impassable divide between Turing and anyone watching the film, between the enlightened few and the rest of us left outside in the darkness.
Yet, in reading more about the man who inspired this film, I have discovered that Alan Turing was not Sherlock-in-wartime-tweeds, but rather a unique, undefinable individual: sexual, witty, personable, alive, and very, very human. Perhaps The Imitation Game could have listened to its own mantra and hold up these more human qualities in Turing, thus creating a more relatable protagonist: Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.
The people who no one imagines anything of. In other words, ordinary people; people who are not necessarily part of “the inner ring”; people like the suburban mother, like the math nerd who doesn’t play sports, like the put-upon office secretary, like the schoolboy in love with his best friend, like you, like me.