British mathematician Alan Turing is known as the father of modern computing. Decades before the onset of the information age, Turing conceived what he called a “universal machine”, a concept that laid the groundwork for today’s PCs and smartphones.
Just as importantly, he played a key role in a UK code-breaking operation credited for shortening the Second World War by deciphering Nazi communications and providing crucial intelligence to the Allied forces.
Less happy is the story of how Turing was persecuted for being gay, forced by the state to undergo a so-called chemical castration. The act deeply affected Turing and is thought to have contributed to his decision to kill himself.
Turing’s story is due to hit cinema screens in the US next week with the release of The Imitation Game, which sees Benedict Cumberbatch take the lead role.
The film has garnered many positive reviews, but also some trenchant criticism. For those undecided about whether to see the film here are both sides of the argument. (Beware spoilers)
Why you might want to give The Imitation Game a miss
1. Makes it look like a one man show
More than 8,000 women and about 2,000 men worked for the Government Code and Cypher School in the grounds of Bletchley Park during the Second World War, and while Turing’s contribution was certainly immense, he was one of many.
Dramatic licence is to be expected, but in her review Dr Sue Black, computer scientist and author of Saving Bletchley Park, describes the portrayal of how Turing built the Bombe, the electromechanical machine used to help decipher Nazi military communications, as “completely inaccurate”.
“The story running through the film of one main codebreaker, Turing, with a team of four or five, producing a machine that won the war, is a ridiculous oversimplification of what actually happened,” she wrote.
As Dr Black points out, the Bombe and its role in cracking Enigma-coded messages stemmed from the work of a series of individuals. Turing’s design for the Bombe used at Bletchley built on that of the original Polish Bomba, which had been produced by Marian Rejewski in 1938. The Bletchley Park Bombe was later refined by another Bletchley Park codebreaker Gordon Welchman and actually built outside Bletchley Park by engineer Harold Keen.
2. Invented scenes
The film ups the stakes by having Turing work alongside John Cairncross, a Soviet spy.
In the movie Turing works out Cairncross is a spy but keeps quiet about it for a while, rather than risk Cairncross exposing the fact he’s gay.
In reality Cairncross and Turing worked in different units and would have been unlikely to have been acquainted, due to the separation between teams.
The invention and implication that Turing temporarily covered up Cairncorn’s allegiance, has been labelled “deeply offensive” and a further insult against a man already wronged by society.
3. The film is coy about his homosexuality
The filmakers have been accused of downplaying Turing’s homosexuality, in favour of devoting more screentime to his close female friend. “It tries to have its gay martyr cake and eat it,” wrote Catherine Shoad in the the Guardian.
“We never see Turing romantically or sexually involved with a man.”
Andrew Hodges, who wrote the biography on which the film is based, also questioned the decision to focus so heavily on Turing’s female friendship. The film’s producers defended the portrayal of Turing, saying they had “not included fictitious sex scenes”.
4. Read the book instead
If you want a fuller, more rounded picture of Turing and his work then you’d probably be better off reading the book that inspired this film, Alan Turing: The Enigma.
The book was hailed by the New Yorker as one of the “finest scientific biographies ever written”, and won plaudits for being an authoritative and well-researched account of Turing’s life and his achievements.
If the liberties the film makers took to add drama to Turing’s story sound irritating to you, then why not read the book instead?
Why it’s worth watching The Imitation Game
1. It honours the work at Bletchley Park
Despite the pivotal role played by Bletchley Park during the Second World War, the stories of those who worked there went largely untold until the 1970s.
While there has been a great deal written about the codebreakers since the veil of secrecy lifted, the tale of what the women and men accomplished at Bletchley deserves to be retold.
The contribution the teams at Bletchley made to the allied victory can’t be overstated. The late Captain Jerry Roberts, who worked on cracking the Tunny cipher used by Hitler’s high command, recently told TechRepublic the impact that cracking Enigma had on the war.
“In the spring of 1941, Britain was losing the war. The German wolfpacks were sinking the ships bringing in food and raw materials to Britain left, right and centre – and of course we didn’t know where they were out there, waiting, lurking,” he said.
“At that juncture, Turing made his fantastic achievement of breaking naval Enigma. There was no other salvation for Britain. Once naval Enigma was broken, the sinkings dropped by 75 percent.”
2. It celebrates human ingenuity
The feats of deduction carried out to decipher the Nazi’s Engima-coded messages were extraordinary.
Each day the German military would change the settings used to encrypt communications and each day the Bletchley codebreakers were engaged in a race against time to unpick that day’s messages.
Man and machine worked together, with codebreakers first identifying cribs – fragments of German text that provided a clue as to how the Enigma machine that encrypted the message had been set up. This work was essential as it narrowed the number of checks needed to identify the encryption settings from 158 million, million, million to about one million. The Bombe machines would then check each possible Enigma setting to allow that day’s messages to be deciphered.
It’s refreshing to watch a movie where the heroes solve problems by applying thought, rather than automatic weapons.
3. It brings Turing’s story to the big screen
While The Imitation Game is not without its flaws, the previous big screen outing for Bletchley cut Turing out of the picture altogether.
The 2001 film Enigma, omits mention of Turing, and focuses on Tom Jericho, a brilliant mathematician and codebreaker played by Dougray Scott.
And despite Cumberbatch being accused of rendering Turing as a stereotypical English eccentric by some, far more reviews have credited his nuanced performance.
But perhaps more importantly it highlights the great injustice that was perpetrated against Turing. He played a key role in shortening the Second World War, only for the country he had served to force him to undergo experimental chemical castration because of his sexuality.
Raising awareness of this disgusting betrayal provides a reminder of why there should be no place for such intolerance in society.
4. It may inspire you to find out more
Today the mansion at Bletchley Park and the surrounding huts where the codebreaking took place are run as an attraction for people to learn more about its role during the Second World War.
As well as learning about the work of the Government Code and Cypher School, visitors can tour an exhibition on Turing’s life, see a reconstructed Bombe machine and the largest display of Enigma machines in the world.
The adjoining National Museum of Computing is no less impressive, housing the rebuilt Colossus, the world’s first programmable, electronic digital computer. Bletchley codebreakers used it to help decipher messages sent by the German High Command, which were encrypted by the German Lorenz machine.
Visitor numbers have been increasing at Bletchley in recent years and putting Turing’s story in cinemas across the world should only bolster them further.