Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Imitation Game – telling a good story about Alan Turing

So, what to make of The Imitation Game, the film based on the life of Alan Turing?

Well, first of all it tells a good story. Some of the key messages about codebreaking are there:

  • Knowing something about the content – particularly stylised beginnings or endings – make it easier to break the code.  
  • The paradox of the codebreaker: you can't betray that by changing your behaviour too much, or the coders will change their setup … something card players surely recognise.
  • The Bletchley crowd were a mixed bunch: classicists rubbed shoulders with mathematicians and debs.
But it's clearly telling a story in the sense of lying too, and that's a frustration. Maybe it must to move the plot along, but some of the changes seem wilful and so out of character:
  • Part of the extraordinary nature of Bletchley was its scale: in the film it's shrunk to something like a "Famous Five" adventure: Turing and his small crew have the idea for the machine, build it (no Tommy Flowers), and then take the decision about not being able to reveal that the code has been cracked; that just doesn't make historical sense, but I guess keeps the plot moving;
  • An anecdote about the scale of the place: a couple who were in the forces during WW2 were recently visiting Bletchley, and half way round the husband confesses to his wife that he'd worked there during the war – because of the secrecy surrounding the whole operation, he'd been sworn to secrecy – only for her to admit to working there too; perfectly possible
  • More egregious is the sub-plot about Cairncross, and suggesting that Turing had in some way colluded with him – no historical evidence for this at all.
  • Worst of all, I think, was the conceit of Turing's "home computer" Christopher. No evidence for  that at all.
So, it's a good story, well acted and put together, but it tells too many stories to be completely satisfactory. Check out the biography by Andrew Hodges for a comprehensive and erudite view of Turing's life.

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