Thoughts on “The Imitation Game”

If you want a historically accurate portrayal of the life of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game might not be the film for you. The major contours of Turing’s life are covered, which is to say, you will get a story with roughly the following plot:

Mathematical genius and figure widely regarded as the father of modern computer science provides invaluable military intelligence that leads to victory in World War II by breaking the German Enigma code. He is criminally prosecuted for homosexuality and commits suicide.

However, once you get past those, the similarities between the actual Alan Turing and the one portrayed in The Imitation Game start to break down.

The overarching theme of the whole film is a sort of analogy between some police officer’s evaluation of Turing, and the Turing Test (“The Imitation Game”), which is a famous problem in philosophy of mind and computer science. The idea is that Turing was giving an account of his life to this officer, and from those responses, we were supposed to judge what sort of thing Turing was—machine, man, etc.

I suppose this is why they played up Turing’s social awkwardness as much as they did. They wanted to shoehorn the whole film into an analogy to the Turing Test. I suppose it also introduced some conflict, and they thought they could sell movie tickets with Cumberbatch doing his “I’m a terrible person but you like me anyway because what I do is so useful” routine. (C.f. BBC’s Sherlock, IT WORKED ON ME I GUESS.)

Overall, I am glad I saw it, and I recommend it. It was entertaining. Cumberbatch’s Turing was likeable, and I felt like (inaccuracies aside) it honours the memory of Turing in its own way. It’s somewhat historically inaccurate, and it’s tied together with a fairly hamfisted attempt to unite the story to Turing’s theoretical work, but that might be okay. I feel like modern movie-goers have an easy time separating what they see in the cinema from what they take to be true about history anyway.

One last note about accuracy: At the end of the film, the captions on the screen seem to indicate that computers used to be called “Turing Machines.” This is not quite the case. Turing Machines are abstractions that exist in thought experiments for philosophers and computer scientists. That said, I would be okay with it if we did start calling computers “Turing machines.”