Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Imitation Game

Year 7, Day 258 - 9/15/15 - Movie #2,150

BEFORE: Let me begin tonight by pointing out that this is a last-minute, nay, a last-second substitution for "The Counselor" - I've been trying to ignore the fact that the rest of my 2015 movie chain seemed to coming together just fine, except for the link between "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" and "The Counselor".  Counting backwards from Halloween, I needed something that would get me to "12 Years a Slave", and after that, the McConnaughey chain would start and I'd be rolling right into October.  

But the problem with "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is the same problem I faced with "Sleuth" - a whole lot of dead ends.  Chris Pine is not in any other films on my watchlist, nor is Kenneth Branagh.  Kevin Costner links to one horror film, but it's set for the middle of October. And Keira Knightley?  I know she links to "Anna Karenina" and "Pride & Prejudice", but those are solid romance films, scheduled for February. 

My original link to "The Counselor" was way, way, down on the cast list - a guy I'd never heard of before, and I'd be surprised if you'd heard of him either.  And then when I re-checked my linkings a month or two ago, I found that all of his credits listed on IMDB had vanished - WTF?  Sure, I could still prove he was in both of those films by checking his personal resumé, but I shouldn't have to resort to that.  People LIE on their resumés all the time.  Besides, even if he's telling the truth, he played "third Russian soldier from the left" in "Jack Ryan" and "guy in motorcycle dealership" in "The Counselor".  How am I going to stand behind that?

I'm committed to providing you, the reader, with the finest possible links between NAME actors, and if I can't deliver that, I should probably just pack it in.  How am I going to sleep at night, knowing that my link is some guy who was just an extra in a motorcycle-buying scene?  OK, don't panic, go up and down that cast list one more time...  Wait, Keira Knightley was in "The Imitation Game" - of course, I needed to check a film that wasn't on my watchlist yet, and who else is in that film?  Benedict Cumberbatch, from "12 Years a Slave" - I can drop this film in and it gets me RIGHT where I need to be for tomorrow, without changing the count. 

OK, so it's going to cost me $4.99 to watch this film on demand - and it will probably premiere on premium cable in about two weeks, given my luck.  I've been waiting for it to air, so I can put it on a DVD with "The Theory of Everything" - but I need to watch it NOW, because of the Knightley/Cumberbatch connection.  The link is good, the chain is solid, and the balance is restored, at least for a few more weeks.  "The Counselor" gets moved into next year's chain, and it's with great relief that I type the following phrase: Keira Knightley carries over from "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit". 

Plus, I get to enjoy the added bonus of the spy theme carrying over.  Both films are about brainiac analysts working for intelligence agencies...how about that?

THE PLOT:  During World War II, mathematician Alan Turing tries to crack the enigma code with help from fellow mathematicians.  

AFTER:  After tonight, the countdown to the end of the year really starts - just 50 more films until I get to see a new "Star Wars" film, whether I'm able to link to it or not.  I feel like this film sort of ties together a lot of elements from recent films, not just the spies/analyst thread from "Jack Ryan" but the military secrets plot from "The Fifth Estate".  Let's not forget the anti-social genius/loner character ("Bobby Fischer Against the World"), plus the British gay man raised in a prep-school environment ("A Liar's Autobiography").  Toss in the "outwit the Nazis" element from "The Monuments Men", the "military think tank" angle from "Fat Man and Little Boy",  the big mystery device from "Safety Not Guaranteed" and the office politics of "Disclosure", and it's like old home week around here.  I'm going to have trouble at the end of the year sorting through all of this year's recurring themes.

But at heart is the story of Alan Turing, who I admit I know very little about, other than the fact that his work inspired very early computers (Oh, yeah, let's throw in similarities to "Jobs" while we're at it...) and that he helped to break the Nazi's Enigma code during WW2.  There's a lot to learn and a lot for me to like here, especially the breakthroughs that the code-breaking team managed to have, and the moral dilemma that was created after the code was broken.  The team could have easily saved lives after gaining the ability to decode every German transmission, but if the Allies appeared too knowledgeable about German troop movements, it would have alerted the Germans to stop using the Enigma machine - so they needed to use the information to bring about just enough victories to win the war, without turning the tide too quickly and tipping their hand.

I would have like to known a little bit more about Turing's machine, which he named "Christopher" but the British army probably called "that giant, expensive collection of whirling gizmos" - I know that the different cylinders were filled with letters and numbers, but how, exactly, did it try out different combinations?  I get that it was faster than any human code-breaker, but how was it programmed?  On a very practical level, what did it do?  I felt the movie sort of glossed over this, probably for fear of boring the audience, but I think another segment of people would have found this intensely fascinating.

My main other complaint comes from the film's structure, which dispenses with a straight narrative to tell Turing's story simultaneously in three time periods - his time at boarding school in 1927, his work on breaking the Enigma code (1939-1945), and being outed in the 1950's and charged with indecency.  All three stories progress linearly, but there is much jumping between them, and I think dates only appeared on the screen during the World War II segments.   If you're going to put dates up, I think you have to do it every time you change to another year, otherwise I think it's too confusing.  Turing didn't look that much older in 1951 than he did in the early 1940's, so at times it almost seemed like he was trying to break codes AND being investigated by the police simultaneously.

I often penalize for excessive time-jumping, particularly when it's not necessary, or done for what feels mainly like "arty" reasons, or when it's done to cover up weak parts of a story.  I think here all three parts of Turing's story are important, since we see how his close friendship with a boy at school helped him discover his sexual preference, and then of course his prosecution tells us a lot about how homosexuality was viewed treated in the early 1950's.  But I think there was a much easier, less confusing way to tell this story, since Parts 1 and 3 don't bring as much to the table as Part 2 does.

Part 3, set in 1951, could easily have been the framing sequence for the film - you start with the police coming to his house after the break-in, and then the detective does the background check (not a very dynamic part of the movie, anyway).  Then during the interview with the detective, you let Turing tell his story - flash back to the boarding school years if you want, but don't linger there, because you want to get to his volunteering to solve codes for British Intelligence.  Then the WW2 story can progress linearly from there - see, you only need to jump back in time ONCE, and the story progresses linearly from there.  Or you can keep jumping back to the older narrator, like they did with Salieri in "Amadeus", but jumping back and forth between three time periods is just too much.

There also are reportedly many inaccuracies in this film, including downplaying the information received from Polish intelligence that helped break the Enigma code, and whether the decision to withhold information after breaking the code was made at the cryptographer's level, or much higher up in the chain.  If not for these inaccuracies and the weird time-jumping structure, I think I could have rated this one a bit higher.

NITPICK POINT: The title of the film comes from one of Turing's thought experiments, which he conceived of before there was even much of a thing called artificial intelligence.  The concept is that ideally, if A.I. technology were to progress as he thought it might, it should be difficult for someone who is asking a set of questions of an entity to determine whether he's speaking to a human or a computer.  Assuming, that is, that the computer can properly imitate human speech and/or thought - a version of this test famously appeared in the film "Blade Runner", under another name.  When used in this film, Turing asks the detective to play his little game - but the game just doesn't work when two people are sitting across a table from each other, unless the detective would have reason to suspect that Turing is an android, which would not be possible with 1951 technology.   The game only works when the two entities are communicating via keyboard, or by e-mail or text messaging, which didn't exist back then either. 

Also starring Benedict Cumberbatch (last heard in "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"(, Matthew Goode (last seen in "Match Point"), Allen Leech, Rory Kinnear (last seen in "Skyfall"), Charles Dance (last seen in "Scoop"), Mark Strong (last seen in "Syriana"), Matthew Beard (last seen in "One Day"), Alex Lawther, Jack Bannon, James Northcote, Steven Waddington, Tom Goodman-Hill.

RATING: 7 out of 10 crossword puzzles

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