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Film / The Imitation Game

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"Do you know, this morning... I was on a train that went through a city that wouldn't exist if it wasn't for you. I bought a ticket from a man who would likely be dead if it wasn't for you. I read up on my work... a whole field of scientific inquiry that only exists because of you. Now, if you wish you could have been normal... I can promise you I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren't."
Joan Clarke

The Imitation Game is a 2014 biopic film directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore, based on the life of British computer scientist and wartime codebreaker Alan Turing. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, with Keira Knightley, Charles Dance, and Mark Strong in supporting roles, the film is based on Andrew Hodges' 1983 biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, and derived its title from the name of the game Turing proposed in a 1950 paper to answer the question "Can machines think?"

The movie is primarily set during the Second World War, when Turing worked at the Bletchley Park compound where the British Government had set up a top-secret code-breaking and intelligence-gathering station, under the cover of an electronics factory. Turing and his colleagues were assembled from universities around the country and tasked with breaking the German Enigma encryption that was used for most German communications.

The film also flashes back to Turing's childhood at boarding school, with Alex Lawther playing young Alan, and flashes forward to after the war during the early 1950s when Turing's background is being investigated by a police inspector who is suspicious that the mathematics professor is hiding something.

The Imitation Game provides examples of:

  • An Aesop: Stay weird, stay different. Writer Graham Moore emphasizes this message in his emotional Oscar acceptance speech.

  • And Starring: "With Charles Dance and Mark Strong."
  • Arc Words:
    • "Sometimes, it's the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things (that) no one can imagine."
    • And to a lesser extent, "Are you paying attention?"
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Alan asks several to the police detective near the end of the film, after we know his whole story. The detective outright admits that he cannot answer them.
    Alan: So tell me, what am I? Am I a machine? Am I a person? Am I a war hero? Am I a criminal?
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Alan Turing is an academical version of this.
  • Artistic License – History: Has its own page.
  • Artistic License – Military: At one point, Alan decides they can't use the broken code to stop a planned bombing raid by the Germans, because they risk them finding out they've broken Enigma. Such a decision would never be made by low-ranking code breakers, and would be given to the higher-ups, following the chain of command. Everyone in the room would know this as well.
  • As You Know:
    • Joan asks if Alan's plan is to build his theoretical "Universal Machine" that he had written about in a University Paper, and then proceeds to describe it to him.
    • Similarly, John reminds Alan that homosexuality is illegal and what the consequences of him being outed would be to his job and his life.
  • Based on a True Story: The film claims to be this trope but in actuality, it's Very Loosely Based on a True Story as evidenced by the examples under Artistic License – History.
  • The Beard: Joan is content to serve this role to Alan, and she is comfortable with the idea that their future marriage will be based on friendship instead of romance.
  • Berate and Switch: Major Menzies, when ask by Turing and Joan to help them keep the successful codebreaking a secret from the higher-ups.
    Menzies: Maintain a conspiracy of lies ... at the highest levels of government!? ...[pause]... Sounds right up my alley.
    Turing: This distraction is completely unacceptable ...[pause]... Please take a seat so we can begin.
  • Birds of a Feather: Alan and Joan are closer to each other than with anyone else on their team partly because they are slightly smarter than the rest, and also because they both feel oppressed by society; he is a socially awkward gay man, while she is a woman who excels in a field that at the time was reserved solely for men.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Alan and his team crack Enigma, but Alan is persecuted for his homosexuality, forced to chemically castrate himself, and eventually commits suicide. The title card reveals he was pardoned years after his death though.
  • Blackmail: John Cairncross threatens to make Turing's homosexuality public if he were to report him as a Soviet spy.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: For Turing at least, though there is no indication it was any worse than any other boarding school of the time (which only makes it worse).
  • Break Her Heart to Save Her: Turing obviously cares about Joan in his own way, but after Menzies' visit, he tells her that he never cared about her and only wanted her help to break Enigma to get her out of harm's way. She slaps him with tears in her eyes, but she declares she's staying because she has no intention of letting anyone, especially Turing, tell her what to do.
  • Broken Tears: When Turing explains to Joan his choosing of chemical castration over prison so he could continue to work on "Christopher", he breaks down sobbing that it's because "[he doesn't] want to be alone."
  • But Not Too Gay: The film was criticized for this, courting accusations that Alan Turing was depicted as being interested in Joan Clarke, especially when he proposes to her. The Reveal is that his flashbacks to his friendship with Christopher in school was actually a one-sided crush that never went anywhere. In the film, he is blackmailed and persecuted for being gay, but never actually shown engaging in any relationships on-screen.
  • Cannot Tell a Joke: A Running Gag with Turing is his inability to tell jokes of his own or recognise them in others.
  • The Casanova: Hugh is a womanizer.
  • Character Development: Joan, though intellectual, is rather restrained in her ambitions initially and sometimes considers leaving her employment. But by the end, she adamantly makes it clear to Alan that her work is important and his attempts to drive her away from it for her safety is outright condescending.
  • Character Exaggeration: There is widespread speculation that Turing was autistic, but the film depicts him as far blunter and more socially oblivious than he was in Real Life.
  • Chekhov M.I.A.: Early on, Peter Hilton mentions that his brother is in the navy protecting convoys. Later on, once they've broken Enigma, and find an Allied convoy steaming into a U-boat ambush, one of the ships is the one his brother is on.
  • Cold Equation: Known as "blood-soaked calculus" in the film. The allies must allow most German operations to proceed to prevent them realizing that Enigma has been cracked.
  • Comforting Comforter: At one point we see Alexander cover his sleeping team mate with his jacket at the lab.
  • Contrived Coincidence: For the sake of drama. The first target that "Christopher" could have saved is a ship convoy where one of the team member's brother is stationed — and they don't dare warn them, or send support, because it would let the Germans know their code has been breached. It also allows the audience to feel the full weight of the decision, avoiding A Million Is a Statistic and making you question if you'd be willing to look family members in the eye while making the same decision, necessary as it was.
  • Cure Your Gays: Alan Turing is a rather tragic, real-life example of an attempt to use this trope.
  • Death of a Thousand Cuts: Once the Enigma code is broken, this is essentially how the British government plans to win the war with the intelligence they can decipher. As Alan says, "Now comes the hard part."
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Both towards homosexuality (illegal in Britain until 1967), and women taking up important jobs in wartime.
    • Turing's headmaster is pleased, not concerned, that young Turing pretends that he wasn't that close to his good friend Christopher, who has just died. He is well aware that Turing was good friends with Christopher and wants to be supportive if Turing needs it, but he is pleased and impressed that Turing doesn't want to make a big deal out of it instead of recognising the obvious coping or avoidance behaviour from him.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The Imitation Game is the title of Turing's essay on artificial intelligence, but it also refers to his attempt to imitate "normal" behaviour (i.e. being sociable and appearing to be heterosexual).
  • Double Standard: Joan highlights that she's a woman in a man's job and she "doesn't have the luxury of being an arse".
  • Enter Stage Window: Turing used this technique to secretly enter Joan's room so they could ... share notes.
  • Establishing Character Moment: For Alexander, as being a math genius, in his introductory scene: "1-5-9 ... with 18 zeroes behind it... possibilities."
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Turing realizes that the Enigma encoders are in the habit of regularly typing certain words and phrases into their messages. That serves as a key to allow Turing's computer to break the code.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: How Turing's "Eureka!" Moment came about. He listened to the girl at the bar talking about her German boyfriend until it clicked.
  • Fatal Flaw: Was it overconfidence or stupidity? Turing and his team were able to solve Enigma thanks to the fact that every message has two things in common: they start with "Morning" and end with "Heil Hitler".
  • Feed the Mole: A rather harmless variant. The MI6 placed John Cairncross, an Unwitting Pawn, at Bletchley and then decided what information he was allowed to leak to the Russians. It certainly wasn't false information yet nothing that would have harmed the British interests.
  • First Love: Christopher is the first boy Alan develops romantic feelings for.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Enigma is broken, the Nazis are defeated, Turing creates the world's first computer, and gets chemically castrated for homosexuality.
  • Foreshadowing: The film shows Turing cleaning up cyanide in his computer room and also brings up apples a few times. Turing is thought to have killed himself with a cyanide-laced apple.
    Detective: Good luck with the cyanide.
  • Friendship Moment: Hugh Alexander really doesn't like Turing, but stands up for him when their unit's commander turns up to shut the team's work down.
  • Geek Physiques: Inverted. Turing and his co-workers are portrayed as typical computer nerds but several scenes show him running, and running hard. In reality, Turing was indeed a talented long-distance runner, to the extent that he ran a tryout for the 1948 Olympic marathon team.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Every major character except one is a "good guy" in that they're working around the clock to stop the Nazis, but there are no shortage of jerkasses in the film. The exception is nice, but not good, in the wider sense.
  • Hard-Work Montage: A sequence, intercutting footage of Turing jogging and sitting over his formulas at Bletchley Park.
  • The Hero Dies: Turing kills himself after being forced into chemical castration.
  • Hidden Purpose Test: Turing gets halfway through explaining this as his reason for writing a quiz that takes him eight minutes to complete and telling the candidates that they have only six minutes.
  • Historical Beauty Update: Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley are considerably better looking than their characters' real-life counterparts. Turing's niece even criticized the casting of Knightley for being too attractive. The costume designer for the film relates that Keira Knightley asked to be dressed as dowdily as possible, and that they thought that this was essentially an impossible challenge.
  • Historical Relationship Overhaul:
    • Turing probably never met John Cairncross, the Soviet agent (who was a real person). And even if they met, it's highly unlikely they discovered each other's secrets.
    • The real Hugh was married to Enid Constance Crichton Neate.
    • In the film Turing proposes to Joan while keeping his sexuality a secret, only confessing as an attempt to push her away months later. According to Joan Clarke he proposed, she said yes and he then immediately confessed to being a homosexual, "something that caused [her] some concern since she was pretty sure that that was not something that would go away." He then later broke up with her, not because of a noble wish to keep her out of Menzie's clutches, but because he simply realized that the whole "staying celibate and having a loving sex-less marriage" was not going to work, and it would be unfair to demand that from Joan while he would be having guys on the side.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Commander Denniston is depicted as a rigid, snarky Jerkass who holds Turing in barely-concealed contempt and tries shutting down his Christopher project. This doesn't tally with the real Denniston, whose colleagues and subordinates considered him a supportive boss with a wry sense of humour unlike the martinet portrayed in the film. His personal relationship with Turing was cordial-to-friendly, and they only clashed a few times (notably over Turing's request to hire more employees, which he opposed but ultimately accepted) while working together. Denniston's family was not pleased with his portrayal.
    • In a way, Alan Turing himself is reimagined as an Insufferable Genius who initially alienates everyone else due to his poor social skills - not winning people over until Joan gives him a pep talk on the importance of being liked. He's also perfectly willing to let five hundred civilians die to prevent the Germans from knowing they've broken Enigma (even breaking the phone to stop Hugh from letting their superiors know).
    • John Cairncross was indeed an undercover Soviet spy at Bletchley Park, but the film gives him a fictional subplot where he blackmails Alan into keeping quiet by threatening to reveal his sexuality (in reality, they worked in different departments and likely never knew each other, and Alan was actually more open about his sexuality than the film portrays). This goes hand in hand with the above, as Alan's general Jerkass behaviour irritates Commander Denniston, and Cairncross says he's looking for any excuse to get rid of him.
  • Hollywood Autism: Alan Turing's portrayal has several aspects of this trope that he did not display in real life; as a child, he's shown to get distressed if his peas and carrots aren't separated, he's bad at working with others, does not understand sarcasm and has a very dour personality.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Turing knowingly lets many people die in order to conceal the fact that Enigma has been broken.
  • If It's You, It's Okay: Alan's attraction to Joan has shades of this - being gay, he's not sexually attracted to her but he does appear to show some sort of romantic interest.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: For all his antisocial behaviour, Turing really does want to connect with people, and his attempts to make "Christopher" ever more intelligent (and writing of the essay regarding artificial intelligence) is strongly implied to be his attempt to make a sentient being that can connect with him in a way that doesn't come laden with the social "code" that he doesn't understand. All but confirmed during his Broken Tears moment above.
  • I Lied: Said by Major Menzies after he successfully leads Turing on about having imprisoned Joan for being a spy.
  • Impossible Task Instantly Accomplished: The entrance exam for the new Bletchley Codebreakers is a mathematical problem that takes Alan Turing eight minutes to solve. He gives the candidates six minutes to do it, more interested in how they approach the problem than them actually solving it. Then Joan puts her hand up, having solved it in five and a half minutes. When Turing questions her on this, she blithely responds, "You said to do it in under six."
  • Informed Attribute: We're told that Cairncross isn't very bright, but he's also portrayed as one of only five people in Britain smart enough to be on Turing's team. Menzies does rather lampshade this when he points out that, as bad as Cairncross is at his job, Turing, who is a lot smarter, would have been even worse. note 
  • Insufferable Genius: Turing is this a lot of the time, lampshaded when he's told that "in order to play the 'irascible genius', you do have to actually be a genius," and he's working with people who qualify for genius in their own right. However, even surrounded by such bright minds, he is still far enough ahead of the game that his arrogance is (by the skin of his teeth) tolerable enough to work with him.
  • Interrogation Flashback: The film begins with Alan Turing brought in for questioning about a then-illegal homosexual liaison, but he ends up telling his interrogator about the highly classified work he did during World War II instead.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Turing is this through much of the wartime scenes.
  • Let No Crisis Go to Waste: A devastating convoy attack is used by the codebreakers to get back in to the German naval code. ("If it's happening anyway, we might as well use it to our advantage" - Turing)
  • Limited Wardrobe:
    • Major Menzies wears his blue pinstripe suit in every scene he is in.
    • Also, the members of Turing's team are wearing the same clothes through most of their scenes.
  • Living Prop: Out of all members of the team, Hugh is The Lancer and Joan is The Face. Peter gets some focus when his brother is killed in a bombing raid, and John when he becomes Alan's Secret-Keeper and is revealed as a Soviet spy. Jack Good however just gets the odd line here and there.
  • Mad Scientist: Turing is set up in a very similar fashion. He's a loner, brilliant, and loudly insists his machine will work. It's actually for these attributes that it is pointed out in film that he is lead suspect for the potential spy in their ranks.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Turing, as a mathematician, is prone to these.
  • Milholland Relationship Moment: Joan shows no sign of surprise after Turing's "big" coming out. He just didn't realise the Transparent Closet he was in.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: The codebreakers are working to prevent the countless deaths of soldiers and civilians across the entire world, none of whom they have met or know. As the Major tells them at their first briefing, three people have died because of the Enigma machines "while we've been talking." He then looks at his watch and updates the number to four.
    "I rather hope he didn't have a family."
  • Mood Whiplash: When "Christopher" works and the team break the code, they are ecstatic and quickly draw out a map of the positions of all the convoys and U-boats in the North Atlantic. But they soon come to (literal) blows when Alan explains that they cannot use their knowledge to call off any attacks for fear of giving away their breakthrough, especially because the brother of one of the team members is on one of the ships set to be destroyed.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The police detective wanted to investigate Turing because he suspected he is a Soviet spy. Busting the professor instead for being gay was not what he had in mind, but his superiors won't call off the arrest.
  • The Needs of the Many: As Turing explains to his team once they have broken the Enigma code, although they could save individual lives with the intelligence reports they can now decode, they must not do so as the German commanders would quickly figure out that the codes have been broken and will immediately stop using them.
    • In reality, this is hardly a new strategic concern considering the British dealt with the same situation at least once in World War One with the Zimmerman Telegram that helped get the USA into the war. In World War II, the British would often only use intelligence that had been 'confirmed' in a way the Germans would believe was the real source; for example before engaging a convoy in the Med, they made sure that it was 'spotted' by a reconnaissance plane - also sending out a number of planes that would find empty water to disguise the fact that one plane knew exactly where to go.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Commander Denniston treats his secretary politely and amicably, underlining that even though he's antagonistic throughout most of the film, he's still firmly one of the good guys.
  • Non-Action Guy: Both as an adolescent and as an adult, Alan is meek when confronted with physical violence.
  • The Not-Love Interest: Joan for Alan.
  • Only Friend: Christopher was this to the young Alan.
  • Pet the Dog: The detective who investigates Turing, convinced he's a Soviet spy, and inadvertently discovers he's actually gay, is clearly disturbed by how Turing will be treated after the truth comes out.
  • Platonic Life-Partners / Sexless Marriage: Turing and Joan are an unusual case in that they intend to marry but because they enjoy each other's company and conversation rather than any sexual attraction.
  • Plot Hole: The heroes really do decipher Enigma, and then they realize that if they act to quickly and respond instantly to the Germans' secret messages, the latter would catch wind of what happened. So far, no problems. So then they decide to hatch an elaborate plot that involves keeping most of the British admiralcy in the dark. Why the hell they conclude that Sir Winston Churchill wouldn't understand their point, is not exactly explained. Understandably, this is completely fictional, and the British government had been acting on this kind of intelligence problem since World War I.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Turing's childhood bullies are at least slightly implied to be this; as they're trapping Turing underneath the floorboards of a classroom, one mocks him by saying "Don't be such a kike about it."
  • Pragmatic Hero: Turing of course, but Major Menzies of MI6 also to some extent.
  • Proper Lady: Joan is one, mostly at her parents' insistence. While it is clear she disagrees with them, she is not willing to alienate them completely by working in "indecorous" circumstances or refuse to come home and find a husband.
  • Race Against the Clock: With three people dying from Enigma during a brief conversation, everyone is running themselves ragged to break Enigma as fast as possible. Unfortunately, once they have broken Enigma, they must continue to let people die in order to stop the Nazis finding out they've broken it.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Winston Churchill. The film depicts him as the only person in power to believe in Turing's idea. Without his support, the project would not have succeeded.
  • Sadistic Choice: Turing is given the choice of chemical castration or two years in prison after his homosexuality gets him convicted for "gross indecency." Made all the more tragic by the fact the legal system that gave him this option probably considered it a merciful one.
    • Once the Enigma is broken, they find out about an ambush. They have a choice of leaving it alone, in which case the Germans will sink a civilian ship and another ship carrying the brother of one of the people on the team, or stopping the ambush and risking the Germans finding out about their code being broken.
  • Sarcasm-Blind: Turing doesn't get any of Commander Denniston's sarcastic comments during his job interview.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: The suits worn by Hugh Alexander and Major Menzies are noticeably more expensive and fancy than those of the other male characters.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Alan Turing is shown running outside recreationally. In real life, he was a world-class distance runner.
    • Commander Deniston makes a comment about rejecting "one of our nation's top linguists", which is a clear nod to the fact that J. R. R. Tolkien was asked if he would work as a cryptographer in the event of a war - but never got called to actually work.
  • Smart People Play Chess: When he appears in the story, Hugh Alexander is presented by Denniston as a chess champion, to warn Turing (and the audience) that Turing isn't the only "genius" in the team.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Joan is the only major character who is female.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Many of the characters qualify, and the trope is mentioned by name by the headmaster when he reveals that Turing's childhood friend, first love, and "Christopher's" namesake was terminally ill, but kept up a brave face. Turing himself manages to maintain his composure despite having no foreknowledge of it.
  • The Stoic: Turing keeps his emotions under neurotically tight control; the moment when he solidifies his trademark pinched expression is clearly visible when he's told his friend Christopher has died, with the headmaster incorrectly assuming Turing knew that Christopher was terminally ill and had prepared himself for it accordingly.
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Hugh is a classic example; Joan describes him as "terribly attractive."
  • There Are No Therapists: At Alan's childhood boarding school. Truth in Television for the time.
  • Title Drop: The Imitation Game is an essay Turing wrote discussing whether a computer could be clever enough to mimic human behaviour perfectly enough to fool a human. The way the game works is that the subject is seated at a teletype and told that he is communicating with a person at the other end, and was to guess based on their conversation whether that person was a man or a woman. In reality, the subject is conversing with either a person (of either sex) or a machine, and the game was to see how the subjects, not knowing this, reacted to each. You may know these as Turing tests.
  • Transparent Closet: Both Joan and John already suspected that Alan was gay.
  • Unwinnable Training Simulation: To a room full of mathematicians, the six-minute test. (it is beatable, but it takes Turing himself eight minutes). Turing is halfway through explaining the logic behind it when he is interrupted by the requisite person who beats it.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Major Menzies has known all along that there's a Soviet mole at Bletchley Park and that it's Cairncross. He's used Cairncross as a pawn to pass along only as much intelligence as he feels their Soviet allies rightfully ought to have.
  • Wacky Marriage Proposal: Inverted. All Turing has to offer for his ad-hoc proposal to Joan is a ring made of wire.
  • Wham Line:
    • Upon realising that the codebreakers can use a known-plaintext attack to defeat Enigma, we get this exchange from Turing and Hugh Alexander.
      Alexander: Love will make a man do strange things, I suppose.
      Turing: In this case, love just lost Germany the whole bloody war!
    • When Turing mentions the word "Enigma" to Commander Denniston at the end of his failed interview, the latter takes a 180-degree turn and starts to finally listen to what Turing has to offer.
    • When a young Turing is called into his headmaster's office about concerns raised between him and his best friend Christopher, Turing — out of a need to hide any possibilities of his homosexuality being outed — vehemently denies even knowing Christopher until the headmaster says something that break him, falsely assuming that Turing already knew.
      "Christopher is dead."
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve: The German Enigma machines are reset every day at midnight. The codebreakers hut has a clock that chimes midnight to remind them to discard all their day's work and start from scratch.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The film's endnotes discuss that Turing committed suicide because of his chemical castration. Decades later, he would be given a Royal Pardon in honour of his years of service for Britain, while he is honoured as an important pioneer in computer technology.