The Heavy Hand of Hollywood Notes

Last night I settled down to watch my screener of the Benedict Cumberbatch biopic on Alan Turing, THE IMITATION GAME and the heavy hand of less than good Hollywood notes was evident in many, many scenes.  I’m not sure if I should both with spoiler warnings since most people know Turing committed suicide at age 41, and the world lost one of its foremost minds to a ridiculous  prejudice.  But just to be on the safe side I will do so.

I also know a lot of people have complained the film is inaccurate in its details about Turing.  I’m no expert on the man so I can’t speak to that.  Though after seeing this film I’m going to buy a biography of Turing.  He was that fascinating.  As for the inaccuracies.  I’d just point out that this wasn’t a biography, it was a movie where the first goal is entertainment and any education is just gravy.

SPOILERS________________SPOILERS________________SPOILERS__________SPOILERS______________

The biggest problem was the structure of the film and several of the scenes which felt inauthentic in the extreme.  Framing devices can often be very useful and work very well.  It didn’t work all that well in this film.  They open in 1951 with the investigation of a break-in at Professor Turing’s home, and the story is told by Turing to this detective who is at first hostile and then sympathetic and won over by Turing’s story.  The problem is that the Enigma project was classified and top, top secret for decades so the idea that Turing would just blurt it out to this cop in Manchester strained credulity.

And then there were the two scenes that gave me hives.  I have been in the room when a producer or a studio suit has given me the note that is going to result in the two scenes that most irritated me in the movie.

The first was when the team realize they have broken the Enigma code and that there is a civilian convoy that is going to be destroyed by German U-Boats.   The scene we got was one of the team tearfully begging Turing to alert the Admiralty so the attack can be neutralized by the RAF because the man’s brother is a sailor on one of the escort ships.  Turing refuses and we get the breast heaving denunciation that Turing is “a monster”.  The scene was fraught, overly dramatic and as a result felt completely inauthentic to me.  I know exactly what was said in that notes meeting — “But we need to make this personal.”  Yeah, that’s not a bad instinct, but not that way.

As Ed Green and I discussed later a better way to have done that scene was to have the young man point out quietly that “the Reliant (I don’t remember the actual name of the ship) is escorting that convoy.”  The rest of the team gives him an inquiring look.  And then he quietly says, “My brother serves on that ship.” or “My brother is on that ship.”  Then you cut to the footage of the burning  and sinking ships, the harsh klaxon of alarms, etc.

You then go to the meeting with MI6 convincing them that the world must not know the code has been broken, followed by scenes where the team does statistical analysis deciding who lives and who dies.

The next moment that really didn’t work for me was when Turing’s former fiancee turns up at his house after he’s been medically castrated, and she sees his mind and body have been destroyed.  She then gives this speech about how he made such a difference, and people are alive and cities exist because he mattered!  All, of course, delivered in passionate heaving tones.

This felt like the studio feared the audience wouldn’t actually understand the enormity of Turing’s accomplishment unless the put in this very on-the-nose explanation.

I had one final quibble which was Joan.  I have no idea why or how they ended their engagement, but the scene in the film didn’t work for me.  She is willing to marry him even thought she knows he is gay, but when he tries to push her away she gets mad and slaps him.  Now Joan has been working with him for years, she knows he’s way out there on the autism spectrum, but she believes this nasty comment and walks away?  That again felt forced, like the writer, producers, director — somebody — didn’t want to take the time to craft a scene that was more in line with their personalities. 

What I liked.  Well Cumberbatch.  He’s amazing.  A Best Actor nomination better be coming or I give up on the Academy.  I love anything about WWII.  Particularly the British resistance to Hitler.  It’s awe inspiring.  There was a very nice scene when by listening to a man and woman flirt and then a casual remark by the woman gives Turing the key to reprograming his machine so it can break the code more quickly.  That was a terrific moment and it was set up very well.

I also loved the irony that the repeated phrase Heil Hitler is what allowed the code to be broken.  There’s a certain poetic justice to that.

Bottom line — go see this movie if only for the extraordinary performance by Cumberbatch.  And because in this cynical modern world it’s good to reflect on the heroism of our grandparents and great-grandparents who defeated Hitler and the Nazis.

2 Responses to The Heavy Hand of Hollywood Notes

  • Laurie Mann says:

    I really wanted to love this movie and found it very disappointing. I loved Cumberbatch anyway, who can make even incredible material very good.

    I didn’t completely hate the late scene with Joan – I think there needed to be some reconnection with his past at the end. But, year, the speech was over the top.

    I do agree with you on the problem with “we can’t make it obvious that we’ve broken Enigma.” I know this conversation did go on for a while. But the first time they solved it, it was a little too obvious that someone had to have a connection with one of the ships that could have been saved.

  • Janice Gelb says:

    Loved Cumberbatch’s performance but spent about 2/3 of the movie seething with rage about
    the misrepresentation of Turing’s personality, character, and work with the Enigma team. I hated the automatic and incorrect stereotyping of a mathematics expert as an arrogant narcissistic extreme-Asberger’s antisocial loner. Even without the serious factual inaccuracies in the film pointed out in a couple of extensive reviews (most notably the whole Russian spy incident, which makes Turing out to be a willing traitor to protect the revelation of his homosexuality when (a) he never worked with the person, and (b) he was out to many people at Bletchley so there was no secret to protect) the script taken as pure fiction has problems. For example, it’s ridiculous to think that the army would have shelled out £100,000 on a code-breaking machine and then immediately turned around and wanted to destroy it when it didn’t solve the problem right away. And, as you note, the attempt at heart-tugging with one of the code-breakers having a brother on a doomed ship was insulting to the audience, as is the implication that the British Admiralty would leave the decision of which messages to act on to a team of mathematicians and cryptanalysts. Finally, the idea of Turing (for whom the Turing test is named) of all people anthropomorphizing a computer he built as his only consistent friend was absurd.

    I’m more outraged about the misleading portrayal of Turing’s life and personality than I am about its misrepresentation of the Enigma project, but only just. (And if I were a relative of the military commander Denniston, who is portrayed as a rigid venomous Philistine when actually he himself was a cryptanalyst and supportive of the project, I’d be really upset too.)

    Finally, FYI, there is serious doubt that Turing actually committed suicide. Diary entries show he had made plans for the next week, he was doing experiments with cyanide, and the police never tested the apple near his bedside (apparently a regular habit with him) for cyanide. Further, again unlike the film, his death occurred some time after he completed the required hormonal therapy.

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