A man who struggles with Aspergers. A fragile narcissist. A brilliant mathematician. A closet homosexual. And a hero. Can all of these characteristics exist in the same human being? The Imitation Game suggests they can as unravels the complex life of Alan Turing, probably the Second World War’s most gifted code-breaker.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the enigmatic mathematician charged with overcoming Germany’s Enigma Machine. Hitler’s forces possess a fiendishly complex device that can instantly encode orders via any one of 20 million settings. Even though the British forces have captured a copy of the device they have no way of knowing which setting will be used on any given day:
Commander Denniston: Enigma isn’t difficult it’s impossible. The Americans, the Russians, the French, the Germans – everyone thinks Enigma is unbreakable.
Turing: Good. Let me try, and we’ll know for sure won’t we?
It’s this sublime trust in his own abilities that allows Turing to conceive of a machine that could outwit Enigma, thinking through its millions of combinations faster than the human mind could ever hope to do – in short, the first computer. But his aloofness is also Turing’s Achilles’ heel. Will he be given enough time to prove its effectiveness before the many enemies he’s made shut him down?
The Imitation Game is on one level a slow burning military thriller, complete with saboteurs, hidden soviet agents and an impossible deadline on which hundreds of thousands of lives hang. However beneath the surface bubbles a much larger question about humanity’s right to judge anyone for their differences, particularly when they actually benefit their accusers. Referring to his computer, Turing asks,
“The really interesting question is, just because something thinks different from you, does it mean it is not thinking?”
But the film actually has a more human topic in mind. Turing is revealed to be a homosexual at a time when such practices were illegal. Balanced against Turing’s terrible secret though is his immensely creative mind, his determination to succeed and his courage to make the decisions others will not. Keira Knightly plays Joan Clarke, his closest friend and wife of convenience, who voices the script’s opinion of Turing’s ‘immorality’:
“Sometimes it is the people whom no-one imagines anything of, who do the things that no-one can imagine … If you wish you were normal then I can tell you I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you are not.”
It’s an undeniably persuasive appeal to support Turing’s sympathetic plight. The film’s weakness, though, is that it confuses characteristics with choices. Turing was undoubtedly born with a deep love for complex problems and similarly, on the sadder side, a deep longing for approval and understanding. The first he uses to power a staggering intellect that can make child’s play out of the most fiendish puzzles; the second he follows into unsettling liaisons that ultimately do him more harm than good. In both cases, though, there are initial characteristics – ‘gifts’ the Bible would say – that could be used as God intended, or otherwise. Turing might just have easily chosen to take the same material and developed an addiction for crosswords alongside a real empathy for people who struggle without fathers – but that wouldn’t have made him the martyr for homosexual rights The Imitation Game presents.
Despite the flawed reasoning The Imitation Game is actually an engaging film and one that should still give Christians pause for thought. What happens to Turing in the end is a tragedy and more the result of morality run amok than religious reasoning. However that might just as easily be our fate should we conclude that homosexuality is a sin somehow more revolting or ripe for judgment than any other. The real pity is that Christians of Turing’s time couldn’t find a response that better expressed both the compassion and call to righteousness Jesus directed towards every human he met.