Friday, December 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch as mathematician and cryptogragher, Alan Turing, tells the story of Turing's contribution that led to the breaking of the Enigma code during World War II.

Alan Turing has been described as a "visionary scientist" whose brilliant ideas led to the birth of what eventually became modern day computer science. All of modern computing came from Alan Turing's one idea that machines that could think faster than the human brain and could be made to solve any problem. Turing is arguably credited with changing the course of World War II, possibly shortening the length of the conflict by two to four years and saving the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians, by doing the impossible - cracking the Enigma code.

The German military had an encoding machine used in all branches of their military, called the Enigma machine. This machine used rotors with twenty-six electrical contacts on either side which sent the electrical signals to scramble and encipher military messages. The British had at least a copy of one of the machines which had been given to them by the Polish Cipher Bureau before the war. To try to figure it out, the British assembled the brightest minds they could find; mathematicians, a chess champion, even people who could do crossword puzzles in under six minutes. Alan Turing was one of those people summoned to Station X at Bletchley Park in 1939.

Alan Turing was born in London, England in 1912. His father, Julius, was a civil servant in British India. Since both parents lived in India, unbelievably, this meant that Alan and his older brother, John, were left behind in England to stay with a foster family. Alan first went to school at St. Leonards-on-Sea and then to Sherborne School where he was only an adequate student. While at Sherborne, Turing became close friends with a fellow student, Christopher Morcum. Morcum was a good student with an interest in many things but especially astronomy. In December of 1929 the two decided to take the Cambridge scholarship exam. Turing did not know about Morcum having tuberculosis until he passed away on February 13, 1930. Turing was understandably upset at the loss of his only close friend whom he admired.

Turing obtained a scholarship at Kings College at Cambridge of 1930. In 1934, Alan Turning was awarded first class honours in mathematics at Kings College and became a fellow at the college in 1935. In 1936 he published an outstanding paper on the mathematical problem of computing, titled "On Computable Numbers, With An Application To The EntschedungsProblem" in which he introduced the idea of the computer. In Turing's time, a computer meant not a machine but a human being who performed mathematical operations. Turing believed that we could automate this to make it faster and he believed that any mathematical problem could be solved by a machine using only 1's and 0's. This was known as a Turing Machine, a hypothetical universal machine. By June 1938, Turing had been awarded his PhD from Princeton University.

When World War II started, Turing was summoned to Station X at Bletchley Park to be part of a top secret endeavour to decode Enigma. Turing was a strange man, eccentric - known for doing things differently and "thinking outside the box". He was a loner, an athletic man who liked long distance running. The British were keen to break the Enigma code because they were being strangled by the U boat attacks on convoys from Canada and America. These convoys brought supplies and much needed food to Britain. The German navy was coding their messages using Enigma and had recently changed the configuration in 1940 on the Enigma machine. There were 15 million million ways to code a message - that is, 15,000,000,000,000,000,000 ways. Turing reasoned that if a machine is being used to code the messages then maybe a machine could be built to decode them. It would be faster than humans.

That machine was called a Bombe, which was an electromechanical machine. Eventually many of these machines were built and there were 200 of these machines looking for the settings on the German Enigma. But even this was not fast enough. Turing used mathematical analysis of a number of deciphered German messages and eliminated some of the area that needed to be searched.This allowed Turing and his team to break the Enigma code, allowing them to intercept  instructions from the German High Command to U boats in the North Atlantic and to know where and how the Germans would attack.

The Imitation Game was directed by Norwegian film director, Morten Tyldum and is his English-language debut. The movie is based on the book, "Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges. The movie takes three threads and weaves them into the story of Alan Turing's life. The movie opens with the first thread set in 1952 when Alan Turing's apartment is robbed and he calls police to report the robbery. He insists police not investigate, which piques the interest of Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) who believes Turing is hiding something. When he discovers his war file to be empty this raises Nock's suspicions that Turing might be a Soviet spy. Eventually Nock learns that Turing is a homosexual and after being caught committing a homosexual act in public, Turing is convicted and undergoes chemical castration. The second thread is a flashback featuring young Turing's life at Sherborne where he meets his only friend,  Christopher Morcum. Eventually the two form an intense friendship leading Turing to write Morcum a love note to give to him upon his return to the school after vacation. Except that Morcum never returns. Turing learns later from the strict headmaster that he has died of tuberculosis. The third thread is set during World War II and details Turing's summons to Bletchley, his work on Enigma, including the building of the bombe machine, the group's struggles to obtain funding from the British government and to overcome the doubts of Commander Alastair Denniston who was head of the Government Code and Cypher School. Eventually all three threads are pulled together when Turing under questioning by Nock reveals what he did during the war.

The tragedy of Alan Turing was that the British people did not know of his immense contribution to winning the war until after he was dead and that he suffered the indignity of being chemically castrated as a result of his conviction for being a homosexual and that this led to him committing suicide.  The film doesn't really explore either in enough depth to present the full picture though. For example, The Imitation Game ignores the tremendous work done by Polish cyptographers in breaking the Army Enigma code in 1932, (but never the German Navy cod) laying the groundwork for Turing and his group. Eventually the enciphering by Enigma became too complex for the Polish who did not have enough cryptographers. The Polish cryptographers provided the British copies of the Enigma and information about German procedural operations that were helpful.

One of the strongest messages The Imitation Game conveys is that Turing was able to succeed in breaking Enigma because of his unique way of thinking, that because he was different in many ways; he thought differently and he certainly behaved unusually. At times in the movie, one gets that sense that Turing may well have had Aspergers, but was high functioning. The movie takes it's title from a 1950 paper Alan Turing wrote, Computing Machinery and Intelligence in which he asks, I propose to consider the question, "Can machines think?" This should begin with definitions of the meaning of the terms "machine" and "think". Turing proposed an "imitation game" to answer this question, while avoiding the philosophical question of "consciousness". Similarly Turing himself had to play an imitation game of his own, trying to imitate the behaviours of "normal" people whose social cues he could not understand. Of course there is also the imitation he attempts at being a straight man, becoming engaged despite not being "interested" in women in that way.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an amazing performance as Alan Turing - likely his best to date. He captures Turing's eccentricity and his inner struggles, while portraying his incredible genius. Keira Knightley is one of my favourite actresses and she portrays Joan Clarke, Turing's girl friend, whom he felt an affinity towards because he could say things to her that he could say to no one else. Turing eventually proposed to Clarke, telling her he was a homosexual. She remained unconcerned about his attraction towards men, but the engagement did not last. I feel that Knightley was miscast in the role of Clarke, although she delivers her lines with effectiveness and care. Perhaps because she is a big screen name, more was made of Clarke and Turing's relationship in the movie than happened in real life.

There are some historical inaccuracies in the movie, especially regarding who worked where at what time during the war. John Caircross, played by Allan Leech, did not join Bletchley Park until later on and worked in a different area of the complex on a different code. He was, as shown in The Imitation Game, passing secrets onto the Russians.

Overall, The Imitiation Game is an riveting, historical biography about an amazing man who helped the Allies eventually to win the war. Alan Turing's story is a complex one, which would likely take a documentary series to explore in depth. The Imitation Game at least gives viewers a good introduction to Turing and the race to decode Enigma, an operation so secret that all documentation was destroyed.

You can read about the capture of a second Enigma machine at World War 2 Today and learn more about Engima at the Virtual Bletchley Park webpage. The history section of the BBC website has a good webpage on Alan Turing.

1 comment:

Thomas Watson said...

It was a lovely film, and he did an amazing job (as did several of the folks in it). He had a fabulous physicality to it, and his way of speaking.