Saturday, January 3, 2015

Which Is Easier: Decrypting The Code Or The Codebreaker?

Reel To Reel: The Imitation Game

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley
Rated: PG-13 (but really could be a hard PG)
Red Flags: Some depictions of war violence, mentions of homosexuality (notice I did not mention "historical smoking" as the MPAA does, which is the silliest content advisory I've seen since the catch-all of "intense thematic material.")

You are reading this on a computer because of the groundbreaking work of scientist and mathematician Alan Turing. You are also not having to salute Hitler before you do it because of Alan Turing. His work on codebreaking helped win World War II, and yet he committed suicide after he was prosecuted and chemically castrated for being homosexual.

The Imitation Game, named for one of Turing's papers, is the study of a man who seems to know puzzles better than people, and although the movie takes many liberties with the real life of Turing, including exaggerating his social awkwardness, it remains a fascinating character study in the lines of A Beautiful Mind.

Turing, portrayed masterfully by Benedict Cumberbatch, is an English professor recruited to join a team of codebreakers trying to crack the secrets of the Nazi's powerful encryption machine, the Enigma. The Allies have secretly acquired one of the machines, but they don't know how to operate it to decrypt the reams of encrypted messages flowing from the enemy every day. The Nazis change the configuration of wires and dials every day, meaning the key to decrypting a message is only good for 24 hours before a new key combination is chosen from hundreds of millions of dial and wire combinations. Codebreakers have solved a few messages, but they have haven't gleaned much intelligence.

Turing envisions a machine that can deduce a key quickly using a monstrous array of gears, dials and wires. We would call it a computer, but Turing calls it "Christopher" after a boyhood friend. (In reality, it was called the "Bombe.") Getting the machine built requires Turing to convince a skeptical British military to trust and fund him. He also sets out to build a team of codebreakers using a crossword-puzzle test, which brings him into an awkward but productive relationship with math whiz Joan Clarke (Knightley). With the other lads, Turing must deal with the frustrations of mathematical limitations, military bureaucrats, suspicious characters, and secrets that don't come from the Nazis.

The Imitation Game works on two levels: Turing trying to decrypt a cipher, and others trying to decrypt him. As he is written in this film (and distorted, according to historians), Turing should alienate us, but Cumberbatch plays him with just enough humanity and humility to win us over. Knightley's Clarke is strong-willed and yet accessible in that particularly British keep-calm-and-carry-on way. Even though we learn Turing is gay, the film generates something of a romance between them that doesn't seem forced for the sake of the picture. The film moves at a brisk pace even as it cuts among three different periods in Turing's life, including his bullied time in boarding school and his later arrest for a homosexual encounter.

Grandfather Francis
In real life, Turing's heroic work had a direct connection to another war hero: my Grandfather Francis. He worked with cryptographers and radio operators who processed groups of five-letters, those strings which relayed orders and positions and troop movements. My regret is that I never asked him more about what he did during the war, although he loved to see me work with shortwave radios and an RTTY decoder I had as a child. He told me about figuring logarithms to tune in radioteletype traffic before we had technology to help us. He never told me about the code work, and he probably couldn't. And as was the nature of so many World War II heroes, when the war was over, they put it behind them -- as did Grandpa.

Alan Turing's work went mostly unrecognized for years because of its secrets. Now with some of those secrets safe for declassification, Turing is getting the credit he deserves with his homosexuality as an afterthought. And yet this movie doesn't throw his orientation in our face or hit us with a gay-rights crusade. Turing's treatment after the war for the breakthroughs that saved lives and towns seems like just another puzzle, only it's up to us to solve it.

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